Gov. Bill Walker’s new budget fills a gap that could have shut the ferry system down for much of the spring. The spending plan, released Dec. 15, also funds the full Alaska Marine Highway schedule for the next fiscal year.
A complex provision in this fiscal year’s budget cut about a fifth of the marine highway’s funding.
If the money isn’t replaced, General Manager Capt. John Falvey said ships will stop sailing.
“We feel we can operate the ferry system until approximately the middle of April 2018. Then we would in essence have to shut the system down,” he said.
It wouldn’t start up again until the next budget year starts July 1. So all ferries would be tied up for about two and a half months.
But there’s a remedy in the Walker administration’s budget. It restores the funds – about $24 million. And that would allow the ferry system to continue serving its about 35 port communities — if it remains in the spending plan.
“I would think the Legislature will support it,” said Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, who chairs his chamber’s transportation committee.
He said he expects opposition. But so far, House and Senate Finance Committee leaders haven’t disapproved.
“The co-chairs have been notified over a month ago by letter that this was coming and if they didn’t agree to it to let the administration know. As far as I know, there was no objections to it,” he said.
The Alaska Marine Highway System money is in what’s called the supplemental budget. It includes appropriations that fills gaps in this fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Funding for the fiscal year starting July 1 is listed in the operating budget. Walker’s version proposes a small drop in ferry system funding, less than 1 percent.
But Falvey said service will increase slightly, because some ships are cheaper to sail than others.
“We will run the Columbia a little less and the Malaspina a little bit more. Because of the ship configuration that we have this year, even with a little less money, we will be able to run a few more weeks of service,” he said.
Next year’s marine highway budget is just under $140 million.
Walker’s spending plan also includes money for a small, separate nonprofit Inter-Island Ferry Authority.
“It’s the thing that keeps us solvent,” said General Manager Dennis Watson.
It sails one route connecting Hollis, on Prince of Wales Island, and Ketchikan.
“We come within 15 to 20 percent of making our operating costs out of the fare box. So we fall a little bit short at the end of the year. And this helps. This makes up that,” he said.
The amount is $250,000, the same as has been requested in earlier years.
The governor’s budget lists his administration’s priorities. But the Legislature will make the final decisions. That means it could take months before either ferry system knows what it’s funding will be.