Robert Venables is the former city manager of Haines. He says that the legislature understands that "there's a true sense of crisis" in the system. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Robert Venables is the former city manager of Haines. He says that the legislature understands that “there’s a true sense of crisis” in the system. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Governor Bill Walker is serious about finding a fix for Alaska’s struggling ferry system. Earlier this year he signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Sitka’s Garry White, who chairs the Southeast Conference, empowering the conference to look for solutions to the Alaska Marine Highway’s ongoing problems.

Robert Venables is the energy coordinator of the Southeast Conference, and also chairman of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board. He told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week (8-10-16) how the Southeast Conference plans to tackle its new mission.

Downloadable audio.

It’s called the Alaska Marine Highway Reform project, and it kicks off on August 20 with a statewide ferry summit in Anchorage.

That’s right. The ferry summit is going to be in Anchorage.

The irony wasn’t lost on audience member Pat Alexander.

Alexander – Who chose Anchorage for the site of that summit when the stakeholders are not in Anchorage?
Venables – Very good question, let me stretch that out. We have the Marine Highway System. We have the Alaska Marine Highway System. So one of the challenges when the Southeast Conference said We would like to do this, we have the passion, the desire, the close proximity to the majority of this, the governor said, We acknowledge that, but it has to be a statewide effort. There are Prince William Sound communities that use the ferry. There’s the chain that goes from Kodiak all the way around to Dutch Harbor. Those people are very meaningful segments of the Marine Highway System. Not to mention the fact the the Marine Highway System passengers — where do they go? A lot of it is us going back and forth to the communities that we need, but the majority of the passengers are going into the interior. So we need to hear the voice of the Railbelt. And quite frankly where do we need the most support politically? It’s in those regions as well.

Venables said that there would be more discussion on the ferry system next month, when the Southeast Conference convenes for its annual meeting September 20 in Petersburg. The goal is to have draft recommendations in place which can then be forwarded to the legislature.

Venables didn’t hint at what those recommendations might look like. But he did say that there are viable, publicly-funded ferry systems working in the US and Europe, and they could be a model — of sorts.

“We want to find out what will work for Alaska. It’s not going to reinvent the wheel, but it’s going to be a different-sized lug wrench once we get done figuring it out.”

Although having the support of the governor is a new twist, reforming the ferry system itself is not a new idea. The Marine Transportation Advisory Board was formed in 2009 with an eye toward redesigning the system with more efficient sailings as fuel prices skyrocketed. At the time, there was some hope that the board would be more than simply advisory, in order to effect real change.

After his presentation, I asked Venables what was different now.

“Well I think there’s a true sense of desperation, and an acknowledgement that the system is in crisis. The Marine Transportation Advisory Board is a community liaison network that is available for advising the Department (of Transportation) should they choose to. This is kind of a strategic task force to create a business and operational plan.”

With the state expecting another year unprecedented budget deficits, the legislature likely will not look favorably on a plan that appears costly — no matter how efficient it is. Venables nevertheless expects lawmakers to be responsive.

“The legislature’s looking for answers as much as anybody. They’re not looking for additional requests for funding, but they’re looking for solutions that will make the state’s transportation system truly viable — and at a lower cost. So I think they are very anxious to see this type of effort happen. The ones that we’ve spoken to have shown support and are glad to see the users of the system really at the helm — so Alaskans are driving the process — rather than politicians.”

Compared to some other state agencies, the Marine Highway System survived last year’s budget process relatively unscathed. It took a 10-percent cut during budget negotiations, and the governor did not veto the cut in favor of something larger.

Nevertheless, the system is considering taking one ferry offline completely — the Taku — and looking into putting it up for sale.