Ketchikan Daily News: Murkowski talks AMHS

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, discussed the Alaska Marine Highway System and an assortment of other issues with the Daily News on Thursday during her two-day visit to Ketchikan. 

Murkowski has been on a visit to Alaska over the past week, stopping in Anchorage, Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan.

In Southeast Alaska communities, she said she expected to hear from residents about the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in the Senate, or the ongoing U.S. Forest Service consideration of a possible Alaska exemption from the 2001 Roadless Rule.

Instead, she said, everyone wanted to talk about the marine highway.

The marine highway has been hit hard in the last year by a combination of substantial spending cuts and costly repairs and maintenance. This winter, it has been forced to significantly reduce — and in some cases eliminate — service to most of the coastal villages, towns and cities it has visited across Southeast and Southwest Alaska in recent years.

The final 2020 fiscal year budget signed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy last year reduced state ferry funding by $43.6 million. The 2019 fiscal year budget spent $140 million on the state ferry funding.

The cuts forced the ferry system to reduce service and lay off workers. Last month, Alaska residents demonstrated across the state in protest of the reduced marine highway funding and service levels.

Murkowski said that though she recognizes that "there's not much that we can do on the federal side" to help address issues with management and funding for the marine highway, she is using her position to work for more federal funding for the system.

One potential source of marine highway funding, Murkowski said, is the BUILD Transportation Discretionary Grant program: "pots of money that are more significant for bigger projects."

Murkowski suggested AMHS "as a system" could apply for funds through the program, which she said recently allocated $20 million to the port of Anchorage for infrastructure fixes.

According to the program website, the program "provides a unique opportunity for the (U.S. Department of Transportation) to invest in road, rail, transit and port projects that promise to achieve national impacts." The program acronym stands for Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development.

The website indicates that since 2009, Congress has provided $7.9 billion to 609 projects across the country through the program.

Another potential AMHS funding source is already in the works, Murkowski said.

The five-year, $287 billion America's Transportation Infrastructure Act has already passed through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Murkowski said. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, serves on the committee.

The bill would reauthorize provisions of the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, which has given $18.6 million annually to state ferries over the last five years, split between AMHS and the Inter-Island Ferry Authority, according to a Dec. 9, 2015 article from the Alaska Journal of Commerce. President Trump urged passage of the bill in his State of the Union address last month.

Murkowski said ATIA would increase the annual allocation for the marine highway to more than 4.5 times what it received from the FAST act and increasing the amount each year.

Hannah Ray, press secretary for Murkowski, confirmed in an email Friday morning that the amount would be $86 million each year.

But the source of funding for the legislation has yet to be decided, according to a July 30, 2019 Transportation Topics News article. The article states that the Highway Trust Fund, created in 1956 to fund federal highway programs, is expected to be insolvent "in a couple of years."

But the potential funds from ATIA or BUILD grants won't solve the marine highway's problems, Murkowski said.

"It's not the end-all-be-all," Murkowski said, "but it is helpful.

"Ultimately, it's got to be the state that determines what this looks like," said Murkowski. "The real thing that will be helpful ... is making sure that whatever system design comes out of these task force and working groups, it's structured in a way that we can take advantage of federal highway dollars."

This was in reference to the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group. The nine-person group will be responsible for providing direction to Dunleavy on AMHS funding and management. The group will be making recommendations based on a study of alternative AMHS operations plans that Dunleavy commissioned.

On Wednesday Dunleavy announced that retired Adm. Tom Barrett will serve as the chairperson of the group, which Murkowski said gives her "a little bit of comfort."

Barrett was the president of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company until he retired last year. Before that, he briefly served as the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"He's a guy that does things," Murkowski said. "I have a lot of respect for him. And he's not the type of guy who, I think, would take on this task unless he said, 'I need to have authority to make this happen.'"

Despite all of the action Murkowski is taking, she said, "it's not going to come near fast enough for the people down here."

To understand the urgency of the situation, Murkowski said, "all you need to do is fly into that airport over here and look across to the shipyard. There's no space for anything else, because it's all filled with ferries.

"It breaks your heart," said Murkowski.

By:  Sam Stockbridge
Source: Ketchikan Daily News