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OPINION: Ferries benefit all Alaskans by Duncan Fields

The M/V Tustumena
The M/V Tustumena

The M/V Tustumena, a 296-foot ferry of the Alaska Marine Highway System, departs Homer on Thursday evening, September 1, 2016. The Tusty route also includes towns on Kodiak Island, the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

I live in Kodiak, where our link with Anchorage, Wasilla, Fairbanks and the rest of Alaska is via a highway across the water. When I need a new truck, I buy it in Anchorage or Wasilla and bring it down on the Alaska Marine Highway System. I always stop to see if I need appliances at Costco or Allen and Peterson — or, if it’s furniture, I’ll stop by Bailey’s or Sadler’s, and then I’ll pick up groceries, parts and other equipment as I return home. In other words, the Alaska Marine Highway System provides vehicle access for thousands of Alaskans like myself in Kodiak or others in Cordova, Juneau, Sitka and a whole host of other smaller Alaska communities. Without the Alaska Marine Highway, millions and millions of dollars in purchases of goods and services would leave Alaska.

Without our ferry system, we’d be forced to make many of these purchases in Seattle. Our marine highway is much more than just supporting those of us in Kodiak to get off “the Rock”, it’s also — and perhaps more significantly — about supporting our Railbelt economies with dollars spent by those traveling to the area on Alaska’s ferries. Consequently, supporting Alaska’s Marine Highway is in the best interests of all Alaskans.

That’s why I’m so appreciative of the recent announcement by U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan regarding the Federal Transit Administration’s allocation of an additional $131 million in infrastructure investments to bolster the Alaska Marine Highway System. This funding, made possible by the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, marks another significant step towards enhancing the operations and resilience of the AMHS, and keeping our state connected.

It’s my understanding that together, Murkowski and Sullivan have worked hand-in-hand with the FTA to secure $585 million in Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding for the improvement of Alaska’s ferry system over the past few years. My goodness, I’m so appreciative of their unwavering commitment to the AMHS and the well-being of all Alaskans — both those who use the ferries and those who benefit from the commerce that the AMHS brings. They “get it!”

This recent grant, made possible through a key Ferry Service for Rural Communities provision authored by Murkowski, includes $38 million to fortify the overall health of the AMHS for sustainable operations in rural communities. In addition — and I want to cheer here — it includes $92 million to support the replacement of the 60-year-old M/V Tustumena with the state’s first-ever diesel-electric hybrid ferry — an overall impact of $115.9 million when you include the $23 million local (state) match requirement.

I’ve heard some rumblings that the state match of $23 million may not materialize, but I trust such rumors are unfounded. Like federal “match” money provided to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Alaska Department of Education or the Alaska Department of Commerce, it’s just good fiscal policy for Alaska to spend a dollar in state money to receive $4 more in essential federal funding. Surely our key decision makers will understand this and see that we cannot afford to miss out on this opportunity.

Murkowski and Sullivan’s infusion of federal funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System comes at a critical time. Ferries need replacing and rural communities are struggling along with the Alaska economy. As Alaskans, we should all be grateful for the efforts of our congressional delegation, as well as many state and local leaders, for their ongoing leadership to ensure that the Alaska Marine Highway System remains a lifeline for coastal Alaska. Let’s show bipartisan collaboration and fiscal leadership by funding the state’s matching requirements to ensure a strengthened Alaska Marine Highway System.





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