New group pushes for better ferries

Organization's goals: Restore ferry funding, make vessels a priority

Posted: Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council has helped form a lobbying group to promote better ferry service in the state.

Former DOT Southeast Region Director Bob Doll will serve as executive director.

Better Ferries for Alaska was formed last month after SEACC received a $7,000 grant in September from the Anchorage-based Alaska Conservation Foundation.

Emily Ferry of SEACC described her organization as "one of many coalition partners" involved in the project, but later acknowledged that SEACC wrote the grant proposal.

The new group was formed largely in response to concerns over Gov. Frank Murkowski's focus on road construction and the state Department of Transportation's decision to rewrite the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan.

"There's a lot of people talking about roads right now, which is fine, but we can't lose sight of what makes Southeast Alaska run, which is ferry service," Ferry said.

Doll, a former DOT director under Gov. Tony Knowles, said Better Ferries consists of city officials in Haines, Skagway and Pelican and members of maritime unions such as the Inland Boatman's Union and the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association.

Doll said the group had its first organizational meeting in mid-October.

A mission statement from the meeting encourages group members to contact elected officials, write letters to newspapers in support of better ferry service, and gather signatures for a resolution asking Murkowski to make better ferry transportation a priority.

Doll said the group has not taken a position on other transportation projects, but noted in a letter to Southeast mayors that it is concerned "that the apparent shift in state priorities away from ferries and toward roads could divert currently available funds from ferries and in the long term will prevent needed improvements to the Marine Highway System."

In an interview, Doll said the group has established six objectives to take to the state:

• Restoring $65 million in certain federal funds to the Alaska Marine Highway System for construction of two fast ferries.

• Providing ferries a prominent place in the rewrite of the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan.

• Returning $9.2 million to the Alaska Marine Highway Fund, which is used to operate the ferry system.

• Authorizing construction of a new mainline ferry.

• Completing the shuttle ferry system initiated by the new fast-ferry Fairweather. The Fairweather is set to begin operation in May 2004 and will service Juneau, Skagway, Haines and Sitka.

• Continuing negotiations with maritime labor unions to a successful conclusion.

In September, DOT announced it will rewrite the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan to reflect Murkowski's priorities. A draft version of the revised plan is expected to be out for public comment in January, according to DOT.

A DOT newsletter sent out this month identifies 49 potential road projects for Southeast in the new plan. The Juneau Access project, which likely would build a road from Juneau to Skagway, is one of the potential projects.

But Doll said that if the Juneau access road is built, the town likely will become "dramatically less interested in the Marine Highway System."

"Communities like Pelican, Angoon, Sitka and Ketchikan have a greater dependence on the system than others," he said. "Once the system begins to fragment it loses not only traffic, but also political support."

Doll said the ferry system already has been hurt this year by the Legislature's removal of federal and state money from the system. The Legislature removed $9.2 million from the Marine Highway Fund but did not return the money as it has done in past years, he said.

"That sweep is a routine event," Doll said. "What was not routine was that they normally reverse the sweep for selected accounts that they want money in the coming year."

• Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.



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