House Republicans seek shift in focus on ferry debate
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Some House Republicans pushed back Thursday against the time being spent hearing from Alaskans on the impacts of proposed budget cuts on the state’s ferry system.
Hundreds of people signed up to testify this week before the House Transportation Committee, which heard hours of public testimony on the issue. The small committee room, at times, was standing room only, with a nearby room opened for overflow.
In a release, Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen said rather than spending hours “fixated on one government system, we should be focusing on the whole - investing our time and resources in modern infrastructure,” such as a road that would help connect Juneau with the state road system. She told reporters the Juneau access project is an example of an “innovative solution” that could be discussed.
Juneau is only accessible by boat or airplane. The road project was mothballed by former Gov. Bill Walker, who last summer said the practicality of the project — “a road extended to a yet-to-be-built ferry terminal through more than 40 avalanche zones, with a history of litigation” — was hard to justify amid an ongoing state budget debate.
Rasmussen said she doesn’t want to diminish the importance of the Alaska Marine Highway System but said the conversation needs to shift to solutions. She also said the state has other infrastructure needs that should be addressed.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, an independent from Dillingham, said the amount of time taken to hear public testimony on the ferry system was warranted.
Under the budget proposed last month by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, no ferries are scheduled after Oct. 1. Dunleavy wants a consultant to look at options for “reshaping” the system, which serves as an important transportation link for many communities along 3,500 miles (5,632 kilometers) of coastline.
Senate Finance Committee Co-chair Bert Stedman said earlier this week that the potential isolation of communities is unacceptable. The Sitka Republican said he’s working with the administration on alternatives that would allow for ships to keep operating at some level while talks continue on what future shape the system should take.
He said Dunleavy’s response has been: ”‘Bring me something that works.’ We might have to negotiate what’s the definition of ‘works,’ but we’re definitely doing that, and he’s listening and I appreciate that,” Stedman said.
House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, an Anchorage Republican, said Alaskans have indicated the system is important and now lawmakers need to talk about how to make it more efficient and sustainable.