Senate plan being formulated to keep ferries running through winter

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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - A plan is being formulated in the Senate that could keep the Alaska Marine Highway System operating over the winter.

The governor’s budget for FY2020 contains $98 million in proposed cuts for ferries and does not keep the system operating after Oct. 1.

Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, the co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said he has been working on an alternative plan all session.

Stedman chairs the finance subcommittee for transportation that finished its work earlier in the week. He is proposing $44 million in cuts to the system and says some routes would be impacted and some services would be reduced over the winter.

But, he insisted that shutting down the system entirely over winter “is economically dangerous and unworkable for coastal Alaska,” before continuing to say that, “clearly, reduced service is better than no service - by far.”

Stedman said he had been in talks with the administration and he believed his plan could be acceptable to the governor.

Matt Shuckerow, the governor’s press secretary, signaled on Friday that the current situation could change. A qualified marine consultant was in the process of being hired by the Department of Transportation to look at alternatives to make the system viable.

Shuckerow pointed to the ferry system’s “low farebox recovery ratio,” the amount of a transportation system’s operating costs made back by ticket sales, as evidence of the ferry system’s challenges.

“It’s significantly low, hovering around the 30-35 percent range,” he said. “What we're saying is that there needs to be a shift and change for the long-term sustainability of the ferry system.”

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