Critics pan plan to pay for fast ferry

Posted: Wednesday, February 23, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles' plan to sell $350 million in general obligation bonds to accelerate 11 statewide transportation projects was slowed Tuesday by questions about Southeast Alaska's share.

Rep. Andrew Halcro, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he would hold the bill until Knowles administration officials answer questions about a fast ferry that is supposed to improve access to Juneau.

Knowles last month rejected construction of a proposed road from Juneau to Skagway in favor of a $35 million fast ferry.

However, former Juneau Mayor Jamie Parsons testified that the vessel proposed by Knowles would carry only about 35 cars. He said that's nowhere near large enough to take care of projected passenger and vehicle demand listed in a $5 million, federally funded study of improving access to Juneau. The study listed a road as the preferred alternative.

Parson said Knowles' fast ferry is not even as large as the fast ferries rejected as preferred alternatives in the study, vessels that were to carry more than 100 vehicles.

''I'm not sure doing nothing might be better than this,'' Parsons said of Knowles' fast ferry.

Knowles proposed to pay for the fast ferry to Juneau, along with one to run north from Ketchikan, as part of a $350 million general obligation bond package submitted as House Bill 319. The measure calls for the bonds to be paid off by future federal money paid to the state from federal gasoline taxes.

The federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century allocates up to $350 million annually for Alaska. Federal rules allow states to borrow against the promise of those funds.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe Perkins repeated Knowles' contention that devoting $240 million for a road to Juneau would divert too much money from other worthy projects in the state.

Perkins said a road would take at least 10 years to complete and perhaps longer if the project was delayed by lawsuits.

But Parsons said Juneau was never presented with the opportunity to comment on the smaller fast ferry. He said current Mayor Dennis Egan heard of the plan just 45 minutes before Knowles announced it at a press conference.

Halcro gave Perkins nine questions to answer before the bill is heard again, including an answer to why the governor would select a ferry that had not been part of the department's study.

Halcro also wanted to find out whether the department's plan calls for the fast ferry to make just one trip per day in upper Lynn Canal, whether the department plans to eliminate existing ships if the fast ferries come on line, and what will happen if the Legislature or voters reject the bond package.

HB 319 calls for spending $135 million for two Anchorage projects, $60 million for one in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, $55 million for three projects in Fairbanks and $30 million for projects in Bethel, Dillingham, Kotzebue and Nome.

Perkins said interest payments on the bonds will be offset by the chance to build the projects before inflation makes them more expensive.

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