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State ups budget, timeline for review of Alaska ferry system

March 21, 2019
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In this photo taken Wednesday March 20, 2019, a group gathered in front of the Alaska Capitol, some carrying signs, in support of the Alaska Marine Highway System in Juneau, Alaska. Gov. Mike Dunleavy's administration has proposed big cuts as it seeks options for reshaping the ferry system, which is an important mode of transport for many coastal communities. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)
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In this photo taken Wednesday March 20, 2019, a group gathered in front of the Alaska Capitol, some carrying signs, in support of the Alaska Marine Highway System in Juneau, Alaska. Gov. Mike Dunleavy's administration has proposed big cuts as it seeks options for reshaping the ferry system, which is an important mode of transport for many coastal communities. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration is upping the budget and extending the time for a review of potential options for the future of Alaska’s ferry system.

A spokeswoman for the system, Aurah Landau, said the administration so far has not changed its position on funding to continue operating the ferries while future options are explored. No boats currently are scheduled to sail past Oct. 1, though Senate Finance Committee Co-chair Bert Stedman has said he’s working with the administration on alternatives that would allow for vessels to keep operating at some level.

An initial request for proposals laid out a budget for the analysis of up to $90,000, with a report due to the state transportation department by July 31. The latest version sets a budget of up to $250,000, with a report due to the department by Oct. 15.

In setting the new budget, the department estimated the cost of an economist, marine consultant and support staff working on the project over six months, Landau said by email. Officials have set April 2 as the deadline to receive proposals from those interested in doing the analysis and hope to award a contract later that month. The money is coming from ferry system funds, she wrote.

Landau said officials think the new timeframe and budget will result in a quality report. “The proposals we receive will confirm whether we are correct,” she wrote.

The idea is to have a report submitted to the administration that will be shared with lawmakers and the public. The analysis is to take into account a number of prior studies on the system.

Hundreds of people testified at recent hearings on the ferry system, which covers 3,500 miles of coastline and serve communities stretching from Bellingham, Washington, to southeast Alaska to the Aleutian chain. Many of them from communities not tied to the state’s main road system told lawmakers this is their highway.

Jerrick Hope-Lang, who attended a rally in front of the Capitol Wednesday in support of the system, said he grew up in Sitka and recalls getting on a ferry with his mom and their vehicle and coming to the bigger city of Juneau to shop for supplies.

“It really is a lifeline for smaller communities,” agreed Eunice James, who grew up in the southeast Alaska community of Angoon.

The department, in the request for proposals, lays out a number of options it wants considered, including selling or giving vessels and terminals to a private entity “to run whatever service they can justify economically,” transferring assets to a public corporation whose board would set service levels, fares and employee pay; continuing to operate the system as a state entity but dropping or reducing some high-cost, low-volume runs; privatizing some or all onboard passenger services; and further raising fares.

The department, which notes that list isn’t exhaustive, said it’s seeking the best options or combination of options to reduce the financial cost to the state.

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