The Malaspina docks in Juneau in 2013. Robert Venables, the director of the Southeast Conference, told the Sitka Chamber that it’s time to set up a business-based governance model for the Marine Highway System, and then “take the politics out of it.” (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News)

The Southeast Conference was created in the late 1950s to unify the economic interests of the Alaskan Panhandle. One of its first projects was the Alaska Marine Highway — and the ferries remain a top priority today.

Southeast Conference executive director Robert Venables spoke to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce recently (5-15-19) about his organization’s renewed effort to reform the Marine Highway system.

Practically anyone who’s been watching the Marine Highway System over the last decade knows that it needs reform. It was an unsustainable model, and we’ve been saying for the last three years that things have to change. Now, it could be that the ultimate outcome is not exactly what’s being articulated at the moment, but we’re trying to build a model that says ‘Here’s how it should be run.’ It is a big business. A big enterprise. It needs to be run more like a business. So what does the state of Alaska need to do? It needs to set up a governance model, and then take the politics out of it as much as possible. May (Sitka Senator) Bert Stedman live forever, and forever be the co-chair of Senate Finance. Just in case that’s not the case, we have to build a governance model that says, okay we have folks with maritime expertise and the ability to make decisions, because there are a couple of instances that are such poster-children for dysfunctionality when you go to build the Alaska-class ferries: You’ve got a vessel that’s had five different governors touch the design for it. And now we’rere trying to develop and articulate a long-range plan, and it just changes from administration to administration, without a lot of the public process that needs to be involved. So that’s really the key part of what we’re really after with the reform project.

The Southeast Conference annual meeting will be held in Sitka September 18-20, 2019.