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‘It’s truly an exciting time’: Alaska ferries poised to get significant federal infrastructure funding

Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 4:17 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - A trillion-dollar federal infrastructure bill is set to deliver significant investment to the Alaska Marine Highway System, potentially transforming a beleaguered transportation network.

Robert Venables, executive director of Southeast Conference, said the funding has the potential to make the system viable for the next generation or two.

“It’s truly an exciting time,” he added.

Alaska will share in $1 billion for “essential” ferry service for rural areas over the next few years. There is also $342 million set aside nationally for ferry terminal improvements and a $250-million pilot program for low-emitting or electric ferries.

The Municipality of Skagway wants to run that program in Alaska, hoping to operate a new hybrid ferry through Lynn Canal.

“It was something we always talked about, kind of our dream project, would be an electric hybrid that could service the needs of Skagway and Haines all the way to Juneau,” said Mayor Andrew Cremata.

Skagway officials recently signed a memorandum with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to build a new ferry and small cruise ship dock. The city hopes to build on that with a new ferry to have reliable service through lean winter months from one sailing a week.

But there is some concern about the federal windfall for Alaska. A bipartisan group of state legislators wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in September, asking that the federal funding not be allowed to supplant state dollars.

“What we wanted to do is make sure that with a new use of American taxpayer dollars for ferry transportation, Americans got more ferry transportation,” said Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau. “And that it wasn’t just used to replace state money.”

He added there would need to be a balancing act between improving and expanding service after years of budget cuts and then replacing Alaska’s aging mainline ferries.

“You can’t retire them until you replace them,” Kiehl added.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy must release his budget proposal for the next fiscal year by Dec. 15. Shannon Mason, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said she didn’t have any information about the administration’s plans for Alaska Marine Highway System funding as the budget is still being written.

House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, signed onto the letter to Buttigieg with fellow coastal legislators. She too spoke about concerns that the ferry system’s state spending could be cut to be replaced by federal dollars.

Stutes pointed to a new board being established to fix long-term challenges for state ferries and is optimistic the funding could help create a “sustainable, efficient and effective” system for years to come.

The Department of Transportation is now analyzing how the infrastructure spending can best be spent. Venables said the state has time to make meaningful plans, but it faces some critical choices.

“We can spend all this money here and now in the next five years and prop up a broken system,” he said. “Or, we can use this money to invest into the transformation that needs to take place and have a viable marine transportation system for the next 30 or 40 years.”

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