Stutes bill creates new marine operations board

The Tustumena sails past Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park Wednesday on its voyage to the Aleutian Islands.

After seven years of planning and crafting, a state House bill written and cosponsored by Alaska House Speaker Louise Stutes was signed into law by Gov. Mike Dunleavy on July 13.

House Bill 63, which takes effect in October, will reshape the current Marine Transportation Advisory Board, a volunteer state board that provides reports and recommendations regarding the Alaska ferry system.

“It will do a lot of things,” Stutes said on Thursday. 

She said the bill will add some duties to the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, including reviewing and responding to recommendations made by the new Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board established by the bill as a reformed version of the MTAB.

“The bill also requires the board to create comprehensive long-term and short-term plans,” Stutes said. The department will then submit those plans to the Legislature and governor.

Short-term plans would be revised annually, and the long-range plan at least every five years.

The new law will also require DOT&PF to provide information to the new board in a timely fashion, something Stutes claims has been an issue in the past.

“That’s been kind of a disabling issue in the past,” she said.

The current advisory board was established in 2003 under then-Gov. Frank Murkowski and made permanent in 2007 by then-Gov. Sarah Palin. Currently all 12 members are appointed by the governor’s office, each representing a region of Alaska served by the ferries.

The new law reshapes the membership, reducing the number from 12 to nine, with four members of the public appointed by the Legislature and two by the governor’s office. Of the four chosen by lawmakers, two will be selected by the House speaker and two by the Senate president.

The other spots will be filled by the DOT&PF deputy commissioner assigned to the ferry system, a representative from a recognized union representing the marine highway system, and someone from an Alaska Native organization who represents a community served by the ferry system. These spots will also be appointed by the governor’s office.

Aside from the deputy commissioner, all members will serve staggered terms.

Sen. Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak) said the new bill will provide an advantage over the old bill.

“This makes it much stronger than before and will have several professionals who are familiar with the ferry system,” Stevens said. “The old board doesn’t have quite the same power. 

Stevens cosponsored the bill in the Senate.

He added that the new board will “have a good impact on the system” on top of the accomplished goal of forward-funding the ferry system for 18 months. The fiscal year 2022 budget provided enough funding for the ferry system to potentially plan its schedule well in advance of a normal 12-month cycle.

“I hope we can continue to do that every budget cycle,” Stevens said. “It’s unlike other budget items because they (the ferry system) need to plan in advance.”

Stutes called the reshaping of the board a start in the right direction.

“It won’t be a cure-all but it sure as heck is a good start,” she said. “I’m happy to say this bill passed both bodies in the Legislature unanimously.”

Stutes has long been a champion of the ferry system, including raising awareness about its importance for coastal Alaska.

“It’s a huge economic driver for us,” she said. “The military uses it and relies on it, and tourism depends on it.”

Stutes and Stevens both called Dunleavy’s cut of about $8.5 million from the AMHS operations budget disappointing. The House’s budget bill had called for $60.9 million for marine vessel operations, but Dunleavy reduced it to $52.45 million, more in line with the Senate version.

“But I’m trying to focus on the positive, work around the negative and to correct the negative,” Stutes said. “The really good part is the governor has worked with us and we were able to keep the forward-funding in the budget. It will be a good step in the right direction.”

A next step, she said, will be addressing fleet needs.

“We don’t need a big fleet of ferries, just a dependable fleet of ferries,” she said.

That includes moving forward on the construction of a new Tustumena to replace the current ferry. The Tustumena was built in 1964 and has served for 57 years. The ferry has undergone extensive rehabilitation and repair projects over the last decade, sometimes lengthening the gaps in service.

Stutes said she is currently inquiring about when the final design plans will be completed and when the project will be put out to bid. Because the estimated $237 million project has federal funding, the U.S. Department of Transportation makes stipulations on its construction.

The current Tustumena will be going in dock on Nov. 15 for an extensive federal capital improvement project for several repairs, including vehicle elevator renewal, exterior coating, piping renewal and bridge wing control station renewal. Other repairs include those to the passenger elevator, the car deck lighting, promenade deck dining room flooring and bridge deck flooring.

While that creates a service gap for Kodiak and other communities after the Kennicott goes back to port for its annual maintenance cycle, Stutes said it’s normal.

“We’ve been without service before, we’re tough and it will be worth it,” Stutes said. “You don’t want to be taking a ride on the Tustumena if it has problems it needs to have fixed.”

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