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Alaska Legislators Visit Unalaska, Talk Infrastructure Concerns With Community Members

Theo Greenly/KUCB

Unalaska's state legislators visited the island on Thursday, taking the opportunity to better understand the city's needs as they prepare to enter a special session in the state capitol later this month. 

Members from the State Senate and House, plus representatives from the Department of Transportation and the governor's office, spent about 24 hours in town, where city officials led them on a tour of the island.

Unalaska Mayor Vince Tutiakoff, Sr. said the policymakers were able to see some of the city's priority places, including Captain's Bay Road and Tom Madsen Airport, before meeting residents at a community reception at the Grand Aleutian Hotel.

The vastness of Alaska's rural congressional districts presents a geographical challenge to representatives who can't always spend much — or any — time in many of the towns and villages they represent. Legislative fly-ins give representatives the chance to see the needs of remote communities firsthand.  

"We'd just really like them to understand what a unique island [this is] that we live on [and] how strong our community is," said Blaine Shaishnikoff, president of the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska. 

Shaishnikoff was one of several dozen Unalaskans that showed up to Margaret Bay Café on Thursday evening to hear from the representatives and to share a local perception of the island's needs. Shaishnikoff said he hoped the visit would urge lawmakers to provide "better services" for the nation's highest-volume fishing port.

Many of the policymakers addressed transportation. Ferry service in the Aleutians has declined in recent years, and the 58-year-old Tustemena is already down to one stop in Unalaska per month. 

Credit Theo Greenly/KUCB
City Council members and community members shared their priorities with state legislators at a community reception held at the Grand Aleutian Hotel on Thursday evening.

House Speaker Louise Stutes spoke bluntly about the marine highway's future.

"The service will never be what it used to be in the past," Stutes said at the community reception Thursday evening. "What we are working on is creating a sustainable, dependable service. If you have to have less service, so be it, if you can depend on that." 

Department of Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon agreed, but he said the ferry's future is more an issue of supply and demand.

"We've looked at what the travel demand is, and matched that with frequency of service," MacKinnon said. "Even though from 1997 to 2005, we added four more ships to the system, ridership — both vehicles and passengers — continued to decline." 

MacKinnon said Unalaska's Tom Madsen Airport also needed attention, but he said, "it's [in] much better shape than it was 45 years ago when I first came here."

Legislators in Alaska's House and Senate are scheduled to enter a special legislative session on Aug. 16, which Gov. Mike Dunleavy set for lawmakers to work out the details of the Alaska Permanent Fund. One of the priorities is adding an amendment to Alaska's constitution that the governor says would protect the fund.

Bryce Edgmon represents Unalaska in the state's House of Representatives. He told Unalaskans that policymakers are working out a balance between permanent fund dividend payments and community services.

"That fundamental question is how much of those earnings from the permanent fund should go towards those core services and how much should go towards being the permanent fund dividend?" Edgmon said. "That's the issue that we're grappling with."

Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson told policymakers that state services were more important to him than receiving a hefty PFD, warning that paying out full dividends would jeopardize the permanent fund for future generations.

"I think the health… of the permanent fund is more important than getting a full dividend because that would destroy it," Robinson said.

Credit Theo Greenly/KUCB
Sen. Lyman Hoffman said policymakers “haven't had the debate on what the dividend should be in the House [or] in the Senate,” but said he hopes they will reach an agreement.

Lyman Hoffman, who legislates for Unalaska in the senate, was at the reception. He said policymakers "haven't had the debate on what the dividend should be in the House [or] in the Senate," but said he hopes they will reach an agreement.

Whatever decision the legislature reaches during the Aug. 16 session, the decision will ultimately come back to the voters. 

"It's only a recommendation," Hoffman said. "Whatever we pass in a constitutional resolution goes before the voters and they will have the final say."


Theo Greenly reports from the Aleutians as a Report for America corps member. He got his start in public radio at KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and has produced radio stories and podcasts for stations around the country.
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