The Alaska Marine Highway System needs about $97 million in fiscal year 2006 to stay afloat.
That will require about $17 million more from the state in 2006 than in the current fiscal year, for a total general fund appropriation of $48.6 million, according to ferry system head Tom Briggs, a deputy commissioner for the Department of Transportation.
Briggs said the Legislature approved $31 million in ferry spending for the fiscal year 2005 budget, which runs from July 2004 to June 2005. Another $13 million came from the Marine Highway Fund in 2005, leaving the ferry fund empty.
Briggs said at Monday's Marine Transportation Advisory Board meeting that the ferry system also is developing a two-year schedule, as opposed to the annual schedule under which the system now operates. He said the two-year schedule would help the system with planning and funding requests.
"It allows communities and economic entities, tour groups, lodges and companies that rely on the marine highway system for delivery of goods and services to know in advance the level of service," Briggs said.
The ferry system could be ready to implement the two-year schedule as soon as fall 2005, according to ferry system scheduler Chuck VanKirk. "We're trying to have it in place by next winter," he said.
Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, said Gov. Frank Murkowski already has asked the Legislature to establish two-year funding for education, and added that it may be time for lawmakers to consider institutional changes to Alaska's annual budgeting cycle.
"Why don't we do that for all agencies?" Weyhrauch said.
Weyhrauch, who recently was appointed chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, which is charged with finding new revenues for the state, said a long-range fiscal plan would provide the economic certainty necessary to budget two years in advance.
"It may build in more responsibility and it may be good public policy to do that," Weyhrauch said.
But Briggs said the funding issue could be difficult because state law prevents the Legislature from making future financial commitments.
"The challenge of a two-year schedule is funding," Briggs said.
He said that because available funding and unknown situations can cause the ferry schedule to change, the system could add a disclaimer to the schedule, noting that it too is subject to change.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.