“Let’s be clear,” Robert Venables told the Sitka Chamber, “We will never privatize the ferries.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The proposed reorganization of the Alaska Marine Highway System does not include privatization.

Robert Venables, with the Southeast Conference, sent that message loud and clear to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce last week (2-8-17).

Instead, Venables suggested that managing the ferries under a state corporation would give the system “a public service mandate with a business-minded approach.”

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The Southeast Conference signed a deal with the governor last spring to take the lead in designing a new business structure and operating plan for the marine highway.

In November, the group released the results of their Phase 1 study, which included creating a public corporation to manage the state-owned vessels and terminals.

The idea hasn’t been universally well-received. Robert Venables oversees the steering committee tasked with the project. He defended its work in his presentation to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re not advocating to privatize the ferry system. We’re not even advocating for public authority, which is responsible for all its fund raising. We want to be very clear on that because there have been some misconceptions that if somehow you partner with the private sector either onboard or on shoreside with the assets that you have that somehow you’re privatizing it and you’re doing away with the state’s participation.”

Among the early opponents of the plan is Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, who believes the new corporate structure would give railbelt legislators just the excuse they need to cut Marine Highway funding even further.

Venables told the Sitka chamber that a corporate board — with expertise in marine transportation — would likely look for ways to grow revenues. He also thinks that consistent leadership — outside of the political arena — would benefit the system.

“But we do see the advantages of having a more nimble management and a little more arm’s length to the political influence that occurs on a day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year as you have elections — you know, the whole process there.”

The Southeast Conference will hold a mid-session summit in Juneau the second week of March. Marine highway reform is at the top of the agenda.

“Our goal is to make a clear case for whether this public corporation should come together, what that business- and strategic operating plan should look like, and then what the path — legislatively — would be to make that happen.”

Unlike Bert Stedman, other Southeast legislators are more optimistic about the role of a public corporation in the ferry’s future. Among them, Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan, and representatives Sam Kito and Justin Parrish.