A blueprint shows plans for a geotechnical exploration/bathymetry survey scheduled at Cascade Point this summer for a proposed ferry terminal. (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)

A blueprint shows plans for a geotechnical exploration/bathymetry survey scheduled at Cascade Point this summer for a proposed ferry terminal. (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)

Cascade Point ferry terminal may be ready by ’25, but AMH board members skeptical about its usefulness

“The compelling reason for this is still escaping me,” one member says during project update Tuesday

A ferry terminal at Cascade Point might be ready by next year, although that’s far from certain and Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board members said Tuesday it hasn’t yet been shown there’s an overall benefit for passengers by boarding ships 30 miles north of the current Auke Bay Ferry Terminal.

The new terminal would be on property owned by Goldbelt Inc. — which continues to raise additional questions about who benefits from the project — and the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan updated last week projects completion of an operational terminal by the end of 2025 at a total cost of $76.6 million (up from previous estimates of about $35 million).

However, Goldbelt President and CEO McHugh Pierre said in an interview Wednesday his company isn’t planning to build a terminal by next year and hasn’t had officials with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities present him with a proposed project within that timeline.

“What DOT has told me is that it’s their planning document and they are writing it up that way,” he said. “I haven’t been given an idea of a proposal. I haven’t been given plans for something to build. I have not been given a start date. There’s not even negotiations happening.”

A terminal completed by next year would be a scaled-back facility capable of handing the state’s “Alaska class” ferries such as the Hubbard that provides dayboat service between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, with the full project completed later, according to Sam Dapcevich, a DOT spokesperson. Officials have also previously stated the Cascade terminal could supplement rather than replace the Auke Bay facility.

A update about the project presented to the operations board on Tuesday did not address when, or which, state ferries might begin docking at the Cascade Point terminal when it is operational.

Instead a series of blueprints shown by Christopher Goins, DOT’s southcoast region director, offered details about berthing options and other infrastructure considerations. But that frustrated Shirley Marquardt, chair of the operations board, who said such in-depth analyses are putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

“The compelling reason for this is still escaping me,” she said. “And the operational sort of options that you’ve laid out are a step further than some of the things that we’ve seen in the past. But I’m still missing that piece about why does this make sense for customers?”

Goins said it’s important “to get to the point of what does it look like, does it even physically work” before then determining how — and if — it will be put to real-world use.

“(Goldbelt) has some visions of what they want to do out there for their own purposes, and there is some compatibility with what they’re doing and what we could do better,” he said. “And the question is does it make sense in the end? And what we’re trying to do is come alongside them as a partner, and put some science behind it and some facts associated so that everybody can make a much better decision in the future instead of talking about things that haven’t always been factual.”

Pierre, on Wednesday, said a facility at Cascade Point has been discussed by Goldbelt for the past 20 years as part of a broader intent of providing more reliable water and ground transportation options in the region aboard his company’s vessels and possibly others.

“Obviously weather is a factor and you can’t have 100% certainty, but we believe that with the right type of dayboats and small catamaran ferries that move people on a more consistent basis that you can work around storms, and you can travel the next day instead of waiting four more weeks to get a ferry,” he said.

Arguing in favor of the Cascade Point terminal for state ferries at Tuesday’s meeting was Deputy DOT Commissioner Katherine Keith, who noted “this is not even a DOT project — we are leasing the project from Goldbelt,” and thus the state’s decision-making process is different than that of the Alaska Native Regional Corporation.

“Our decision is ‘Are we going to lease this facility because it makes sense for our vessels? And for passengers for our crew?’” she said. “We have looked at this information and we have a resounding ‘yes’ because of the time savings, because of the fuel savings. There’s a wide variety of benefits — flexibility, reliability, redundancy. There’s a lot of great things that have been enough of a ‘yes’ to cause the department to work with Goldbelt…to get more data about the exact cost.”

As for the cost of the facility, Keith said the revised STIP provides $5 million lease payments — 80% federal funds and a 20% state match — for fiscal 2026 and 2027, after which “those discussions would be based on the use of the facility, and what the Marine Highway System use of the facility is versus Goldbelt’s overall cost.” The federal government is still reviewing the STIP, after rejecting it in January, with a deadline of March 31 to approve it.

Board member Wanetta Ayers, in comments made earlier during the meeting, disagreed with Keith’s assessment and stated the project is “lacking market justification…we have asked for that on multiple occasions and we’re not seeing it.”

“We have heard in public testimony again and again that the public at large is questioning the operational feasibility of it,” Ayers said. “And from a market analysis standpoint, if I were to characterize what I’ve heard in public testimony, is they feel that additional costs are being shifted onto the customer in terms of time, location, inconvenience and that there has been no analysis presented to this board that says any of those issues are being addressed.”

Offering public testimony about the Cascade Point terminal before the presentation to the board was Gabriel Baylous, a Ketchikan resident who said it appears the main beneficiaries are Goldbelt, local mining companies and other commercial interests.

“It will inconvenience walk-on passengers who are in the most need, and do nothing to address systemwide problems and take away funding from communities in need,” he said. “But this project is of great benefit to Goldbelt, Coeur Alaska, Kensington, Berners Bay landholders and construction companies.”

Baylous said “perhaps it would be more ethical” if such companies pay for a majority of the construction costs. He also expressed concern AMH operations board members who disagree with the project will be replaced under an executive order issued by Gov. Mike Dunleavy that gives him control of all nine members as of July 1.

“It would be sad if members are replaced with special interest representatives that will work to undermine AMHS,” Baylous said.

The Alaska Legislature is scheduled to consider an override vote on the executive order and five others during a joint sessions March 12. An override would preserve the current board structure where the state Senate president and House speaker each appoint two members.

The state signed an agreement with Goldbelt last March for a feasibility study of the ferry terminal at Cascade Point. An engineer and design proposal at that time stated the preliminary design was expected to be completed by December 2023, followed by multiple reviews during 2024 before physical construction took place between March 2025 and December 2026. However, the proposal noted a phased project was also a possibility due to budget or scheduling limitations.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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