More than 200 people rallied in support of the ferry system in front of the state capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The Legislature has approved a budget that lawmakers say should keep the Alaska Marine Highway System running year-round. In the past year, cost cutting, a summer labor strike and a spectacular mechanical failure resulted in months-long service gaps both planned and unplanned for Alaska’s ferry system.

Legislators increased the operating budget by around $20 million over the previous year’s budget. Sen. Bert Stedman (R-Sitka), one of the Senate’s key budget writers, says that should guarantee at least one ferry available as relief should another vessel break down.

So we don’t face again what we faced this winter which was no service at all — which is totally unacceptable,” he told CoastAlaska on Sunday.

The budget also adds another $19 million for a specific purpose: repair the Aurora in lay-up due to cost-cutting and adding crew quarters to either the Hubbard or Tazlina to extend their range. Those two ships are the system’s newest and known as Alaska Class Ferries. But as currently configured, they’re relatively short-range day boats.

The the intent of the legislature is to keep the Aurora,” Stedman said, “and we support crew quarters to make the Alaska Class Ferries more versatile.”

The operating budget includes about $16 million above and beyond what Governor Mike Dunleavy proposed. That should provide around 25 percent more service, according to Department of Transportation figures.

Rep. Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak) — one of the House’s most vocal ferry boosters — says the system won’t return to levels seen in fatter times. But she says it will serve its core mission.

“Communities are going to probably do with a little less service,” she said in an interview. “But as long as they have service, sustainable service, I think that’s that’s a good target.”

Some coastal villages have reported shortages of food and other staples during this year’s long gaps in ferry service. That’s because many lack barge service, an airport — or both. The state Department of Transportation hired private companies to run people on smaller catamarans — but no vehicles or heavy freight were allowed.

Rep. Dan Ortiz (I-Ketchikan) says the legislature wants to bring stability back to the state’s ferry network.

“I think we’ve put the marine highway system in the place where they should be able to provide adequate service throughout the system,” Ortiz said by phone. “As long as the governor doesn’t veto those monies.”

Dunleavy could still veto part or all of the Legislature’s ferry budget. Last year, he proposed a budget that only had enough money to run the ferry system for a few months. And it was in that context — knowing the threat of the governor’s veto pen — that lawmakers agreed to a budget that paid only for bare bones service — or in some cases, no service at all.
Last year, Stedman negotiated with the Dunleavy administration to avoid a veto.

But this time, he says it’s different.

I have no commitment with the governor on any vetoes or any discussions along those lines with him for the entire operating budget,” Stedman said.

An estimated 42% of the overall $122 million ferry budget will come from ticket sales for passengers, vehicles and freight.

A $250,000 study commissioned by Dunleavy found that privatizing the ferries is not feasible. The governor has since appointed a working group to recommend ways to cut costs. Its recommendations are due this fall to be put in place next year.