“It was disappointing to hear Department of Transportation officials try to pass the blame for the Alaska Marine Highway System’s current woes onto the Legislature,” said Sen. Stedman in a news release on January 16. “The administration’s proposed budget for the current fiscal year would have stopped all service on September 30, 2019. This was an elimination budget that would have led to the system’s demise.” (KTOO Digital Services/Skip Gray)

Sen. Bert Stedman is unhappy with recent remarks by a state transportation official that the Legislature is to blame for the ongoing funding crisis in the Alaska Marine Highway System. Stedman on Thursday (1-16-20) fired off a news release with a short history lesson on how the ferries were nearly zeroed out last year.

The Sitka Republican thinks Mary Siroky, Deputy Commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, was off the mark during a January 15 meeting of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board in Anchorage when she suggested that last year’s deep cuts to the Marine Highway were a policy decision by the legislature.

In a phone interview with CoastAlaska News earlier in December, she said much the same thing.

“I think it’s important for people to recognize that the legislature made a big policy statement when they reduced the Alaska Marine Highway System’s budget by $43 million dollars,” Siroky told CoastAlaska’s Jacob Resneck.

Stedman co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee. The Senate Majority press office fired off a terse news release on January 16 with a reminder that the administration’s original budget proposal last year would have ended all funding for the Marine Highway on September 30, 2019 — effectively closing down the system. That didn’t happen, Stedman argues, because senate negotiators were able to restore $77 million in marine highway operating and capital funds that the governor had proposed diverting elsewhere.

In an interview with KCAW a day before the meeting of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, Stedman suggested that the legislature was trying to preserve a minimum level of ferry service, rather than see it disappear altogether.

“We, in last year’s budget, had a reduced funding level for the Marine Highway,” Stedman said. “And the goal was to insure that there was Marine Highway service to the landlocked communities — communities with no road service. We have Cordova now, with no Marine Highway service. And Cordova’s landlocked any way you look at it, there’s no road to it. We have problems along the corridor of Chatham Strait. Angoon is an example, trying to get lunch stuff for their kids at school. And then there’s the travel issues, too.”

The “travel issues” Stedman refers to are the inability of people to travel in and out of communities like Angoon — which has no airport — for medical appointments, shopping, and school competition.

The quick response to Deputy Commissioner Siroky’s remarks about the ferries might signal that Stedman feels the legislature is in a stronger position to negotiate this year. The governor is facing a possible recall, and in Southeast Alaska that effort has been fueled by cuts to the Marine Highway.

Nevertheless, Stedman says he’s committed to working with his legislative colleagues to keeping the ferries in business.

“We’ve got the financial ability to operate the Marine Highway at a larger funding level than it was funded in last year’s budget,” said Stedman. “What we don’t have is the votes. And when you don’t have the votes, you’d better compromise.”