Study Suggests Public-Private Model for Ferry System

By Ed Shoenfeld/CoastAlaska

The Alaska Marine Highway System should break into two agencies to prepare for the future.

That’s the conclusion of a new ferry governance study released by the Southeast Conference, a regional development organization. Report author John Waterhouse says scheduling, pricing and similar management areas would be handled by a public corporation owned by the state.

“Give the folks operating the ferries the flexibility and tools to evaluate their routes and revenues and to really do what they need to do in terms of making the system as efficient and provide as much benefit as is financially possible to the core user groups,” he said.

Waterhouse, of Seattle-based Elliott Bay Design Group, produced the report with Juneau-based research firm McDowell Group. He presented it at Monday’s Marine Transportation Advisory Committee.

Craig Mayor Dennis Watson heads up the committee overseeing the governance study. He says marine highway assets would remain the property of a state agency.

“The state maintaining ownership and control of the vessels and terminals and what-not allows them to be able to get federal funding to be able to do maintenance and capital improvements on them,” Watson said.

The study recommends several interim changes. They include forward-funding the system and giving the marine highway control over labor negotiations. Those could be difficult to get through the Legislature.

Watson, who manages a small ferry system in southern Southeast, calls the plan a starting point.

“If you create a mechanism that allows you to do a little bit more long-term planning and some of the things … the marine highway has a hard time doing,” Watson said. “I think that everybody believes that would be of benefit.”

Marine highway officials say they support the study and any efforts to improve the system. Waterhouse says the next step will be to develop a business plan. The ferry governance steering committee was to meet Tuesday to review the report via teleconference.

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