As news got out this week about the possibility of a new ferry terminal at Berners Bay, Juneau area residents are already starting to share their thoughts.
Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, said calls and emails are coming in, and the responses are on both ends of the spectrum.
“I’ve now actually had contact with some constituents who think it’s the bee’s knees and some who think it’s the end of the world,” Kiehl said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re definitely going to need to look at it.”
The Department of Transportation & Public Facilities is currently “exploring options” for a ferry terminal at Cascade Point, DOT&PF Public Information Officer Aurah Landau said via email, which is about 30 miles north of the current ferry terminal near Auke Bay.
The goals and concept for the terminal are laid out in a March 26 memo from Design Group Chief Kirk Miller to DOT&PF Deputy Commissioner Mary Siroki. The goal of putting a terminal at Cascade Point, the memo states, is to cut the travel time down for the Alaska-class ferry Tazlina as it connects Juneau to Haines and Skagway.
The department’s initial cost estimate is about $27 million, according to a chart of cost estimates supplied by Landau.
The future of the Alaska Marine Highway System has been a major topic of discussion this session, as Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal proposed shutting the ferries down in October and commissioning a study to figure out the best way forward for the system. DOT&PF has contracted with Northern Economics to do the study.
Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, requested more information from the department this week. Mike Lesmann, legislative liaison for DOT&PF, responded to Hannan’s office via email Wednesday. In the email, he said Dunleavy’s administration is evaluating this proposal but no decision has been made.
“AMHS service in Lynn Canal under this model will be one of several concepts we are asking Northern Economics to weigh in on,” Lesmann said in the email, which was shared with the Empire. “The reason for exploring this concept is to determine whether or not it is a viable option to reduce the state’s financial obligation and/or liability as it relates to the operation of the AMHS.”
Lawmakers and leaders weigh in
Kiehl said the ferry terminal could hypothetically be a good idea but he has a variety of questions. His first question is whether the terminal can stay open year-round.
Another major question is how people will get there if they don’t want to take their car. A shuttle could work, he said, but who would pay for it? The AMHS or a private company?
Robert Venables, executive director of Southeast Conference, has similar questions about the shuttle. Thinking larger-picture, though, Venables pondered how this fits into the future of the ferry system in general.
“There’s just not a plan that this is a big part of,” Venables said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of piecemeal ideas and a lot of good things to be looking at, but what’s the overall plan? That’s the issue.”
Venables said this terminal is far from a new idea, and that Southeast Conference has considered a Berners Bay terminal in the past. Feedback a few years ago from the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, he said, specifically pointed out the issue of ground transportation to the terminal.
Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, concurred with Venables that she’d like to see how this terminal fits into the overall plan for the ferry system. With so much uncertainty around whether the vessels will even continue to run in a few months, Story said the priority right now is keeping the ferry system alive.
“That’s what’s really on my mind right now, is how we’re going to provide ferry service for everyone that is reliable through the winter and a sustainable plan in the long term,” Story said in an interview. “No matter what happens at Berners Bay … if anything did happen, it’s going to be quite some time.”
Kiehl and Venables agreed that getting this proposal out to the public will help bring in necessary opinions and ideas from the people who ride and rely on the ferries.
“There are a number of concerns,” Venables said, “but that’s what the planning process is supposed to resolve, and if you do that planning in the public arena, then you resolve those issues much more quickly, so that’s our preference.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.