Petersburg Pilot -

By Dan Rudy 

SEC calling for ferry reform proposals

 


WRANGELL — Alaska’s state ferry system is embarking on a journey to make itself more financially viable over the next 25 years, as a process to refocus and possibly restructure, spearheaded by Southeast Conference.

Representing the region’s economic interests, the SEC was first started 58 years ago in order to support establishment of what would become the Alaska Marine Highway System. Appropriately enough then, the organization will help to steer that regional transportation network into the future, after a memorandum of understanding to that effect was signed by Gov. Bill Walker on May 19.

“For over 50 years, the Alaska Marine Highway System has served as a critical transportation link for Alaska’s coastal communities,” Walker is quoted as saying at the signing. “The ferries are a lifeline in many communities, and the economic benefits are felt throughout the state.”

SEC credits the AMHS with each year generating thousands of jobs and commercial activity valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Not only in Southeast but in other coastal areas and beyond, the ferry system is a critical component of the public transportation network, moving goods, tourists, medical patients, and any number of services from one community to the next. But the service has lately seen cuts to its operating and maintenance budgets as the Legislature tackles a $3.8 billion deficit, and drawn criticisms for costing more than it brings in in revenues.

To address these issues, this week SEC announced it would be seeking proposals for a comprehensive operational and business plan. The first part of that process will be to focus on how AMHS is governed, with a focus on having it provide regional service in the most efficient manner possible.

A nine- or 10-person steering committee is being assembled, which will oversee public development of a new governing structure. This process will involve taking input from specialists in the field as well as from ferry users and connected communities. Consulting with Walker’s office, SEC will be tasked with selecting committee members, which it hopes will reflect a balanced representation of the ferry system’s user base.

“This is a statewide initiative,” said Shelly Wright, SEC executive director. Applicants from all over the state have already expressed interest in the committee. She pointed out that for Anchorage and even Fairbanks, the state ferry system remains an important component of the overall transportation network. “It’s not just a Southeast issue, it’s a statewide issue.”

Through Monday, SEC will be accepting letters of interest from those interested in participating on the committee. Explaining why it is they are interested in serving and what perspective might be brought to the committee, applicants are asked to submit their letter and a resume to transportation@seconference.org.

Members of the steering committee can be expected to attend monthly teleconferences and other meetings as needed, as well as participate on task forces or subcommittees which may be established. A committee member is also expected to attend a one-day summit in Anchorage in August, and to attend the SEC meeting in Petersburg slated for Sept. 20 to 22.

The project is expected to last until December 2017, and commitment to it for its full duration is desired. While the position is an unpaid one, steering committee members may have travel expenses covered for the two in-person events.

“We will appoint a steering committee probably the first week in July,” said Wright. After one has been selected, SEC anticipated the project will have its formal kickoff with the aforementioned summit for stakeholders in August.

“This first phase of statewide stakeholder involvement and governance modeling is a small but significant step toward insuring the system’s long-term viability,” SEC president Garry White said in the announcement. “The current fiscal challenges require that transformational changes be made to have a responsive and sustainable ferry system for the next generation.”

The committee will then set to work on developing two or three options for a workable governance model for AMHS.

“They’ll be reviewing all the studies that have been done in the past 10 years or so – and there’s been quite a few of them – worldwide, dealing with marine transportation systems,” Wright said.

A public process will be used to review those, likely in September during SEC’s annual session.

“I don’t know if it will be ultimately decided in September, but our goal is to have a governance plan ready to go to legislators in January,” Wright said. The Legislature will then take up adoption of the new structure, potentially within its regular session. “Hopefully that will be done in 2017.”

Meanwhile, SEC’s steering committee will begin working on putting together a strategic plan for the marine highway system, one which looks at the next quarter-century. It will then fall to the newly-adopted governing structure to implement the plan and manage the service.

Putting together an operational plan of this scope is a relatively new idea, explained Alaska Department of Transportation public information officer Jeremy Woodrow. During the planning process SEC will be fully engaged with ADOTPF, seeking its expertise and drawing on its figures.

“We’re here to provide numbers and staff as needed, but Southeast Conference is spearheading this,” he said.

“They’ve been the ones that have been intimately involved in this transportation system for so many years,” Wright explained.

As with other state agencies, AMHS has been targeted for cuts to its operating budget for the coming year, which has caused the service to begin drawing from its reserved funds and offer up a leaner service for the coming post-summer season.

Next year’s schedule will be down eight percent from this year’s 355.7 operating weeks to 330.2. As the proposed schedule currently stands, the ferry intends to run operating weeks for nine of its vessels, with the Taku and Chenega both being on layup for much of the next fiscal year as cost saving measures. Entering its second year of inactivity, the Taku may be headed for eventual divestment.

A public comment period on the upcoming winter schedule ended yesterday after a public teleconference, but Woodrow said AMHS would be looking for user feedback and constructive criticism year-round. As for the future of the ferry system, he said the department would be supporting SEC’s steering committee in any way it can.

“It will be interesting to see what it is they come up with,” Woodrow commented.

 

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