The ferry Malaspina makes a rare appearance near downtown Sitka in 2010. A new report suggests a public corporation be formed to manage ferry operations. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

A state contract worth up to $250,000 to study the future of Alaska’s ferries is on hold. Two Anchorage firms are vying for the contract: Northern Economics bid $249,887.54 for its proposal; MAP Consulting LLC bid $224,888 — roughly $25,000 less — for its proposal.

But the low bidder, MAP Consulting, filed an appeal after being passed over.

Cost is weighted as 40 percent of a proposal’s score but there are other factors.

“Northern Economics simply scored higher in all other criteria than cost,” Alaska Department of Transportation regional spokeswoman Aurah Landau said Monday. “There’s a 10-day protest period and that will conclude on April 22.”

That puts the brakes on the process as skeptical lawmakers in coastal Alaska raise questions. The legislature doesn’t have the ability to intervene directly but that hasn’t blunted criticism from districts most served by ferries.

“We do not need to spend more public money on yet another consultant,” Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes, a Republican member of the House coalition, wrote in a statement. “The state has paid for many studies over the last 20 years that consistently tell us the same thing: The Alaska Marine Highway is vital to our economy. “

Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz said he’s concerned about the administration’s focus on privatization.

“There’s not money to be made in providing transportation to small communities,” Ortiz said in an interview. “But that’s never been the goal of the marine highway system to be a money-making operation, a profit operation. Just like our highways up in the Interior – they’re not money-making operations.”

“I’m concerned that the department is spending additional money and not going with the good existing plans that were researched and developed by the Alaska Marine Highway Reform Project‘s steering committee,” Juneau Democratic Rep. Andi Story said by phone. “The department’s taking actions like selling vessels,” she said. “I’d like to slow down on any moving forward before this plan is completed.”

The future of ferry service still remains in question. The Dunleavy administration argues that the ferries are losing too much money and proposed ending service in October.

The House rejected that plan but still slashed about $10 million from the ferry’s budget. Attention now shifts to the Senate.