This photo shows the Juneau road system ending at Cascade Point in Berners Bay in May 2006. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)

This photo shows the Juneau road system ending at Cascade Point in Berners Bay in May 2006. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: Dunleavy’s mockery of the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board

Both the House and the Senate voted unanimously to create the AMHOB.

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, February 10, 2023 2:42pm
  • Opinion

A new ferry terminal at Cascade Point has “already been decided. It’s going to be built” Captain Keith Hillard said during the December 2nd Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board meeting. “I definitely did not say that” then-Deputy Commission Rob Carpenter shot back at the board member.

But two months later, a Request for Proposal put out by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities proved Hillard was right.

As the Empire reported last week, DOT issued the RFP for “outside engineering and design services to determine whether it’s feasible to build a new ferry terminal facility in Juneau at Cascade Point.” The property is owned by Goldbelt. They will lease the terminal to the Alaska Marine Highway System which “would provide seasonal daily sailing to Haines and Skagway from March through September.” And possibly for winter sailings as well.

Although the first line of the RFP’s Scope of Work states a “feasibility analysis” is included, they’re asking for nothing more than a preliminary construction cost estimate. The primary work of the “Design Services” contract involves the development of plans, specifications, and cost estimates for construction of the terminal. The anticipated “key milestone dates” are to have the project out for competitive bid by October 2024 and construction complete around the time Gov. Mike Dunleavy leaves office in 2026.

That is definitely not what DOT told AMHOB members in December.

Carpenter stated they’re “still evaluating” the project.

Katherine Keith, who replaced Carpenter as Deputy Commissioner a month after the meeting, said DOT was focused on “getting more information” before making any “strong decisions.” But like the RFP, she spoke about that in terms of estimating construction costs.

That’s only one factor in a cost/benefit analysis. A sufficiently developed estimate of traffic demand, including the impact to walk-on passengers, is necessary to accurately assess how much of an increase in ridership and ticket revenue will be generated. That hasn’t been done.

Throughout the 52-minute-long discussion, Hillard and Board members Shirley Marquardt (Chair), Wanetta Ayers (Vice-Chair), and Ed Page all questioned DOT about the economically viability of the project.

Hillard asked “How did they come up with the scenario this is going to raise revenue?”

Keith replied that a working group spent a few days in Ketchikan running “numbers and scenarios in all sorts of ways” and determined the project made “a lot of economic sense, believe it or not.” She said that so-called model “will continue to be refined as we get updated assumptions.”

Ayers wasn’t satisfied. She correctly argued that a proper business case needs to be made to show “why a leased facility at Cascade Point makes the best sense for the system and for the other investments we’re being asked to provide advice on.” And added all she’s heard from DOT the past year is “just generalized market speculation.”

Marquet agreed with Ayers “a hundred percent.”

But Carpenter claimed “the market based viability is a hundred percent there, that’s been proven.”

Apparently, the proof is Dunleavy has already decided the public/private partnership and project make economic sense.

This is a governor who has relied on the expression “we’re having a discussion” to skirt answering all kinds of questions. But in his view, AMHOB members appointed by the Legislature shouldn’t be part of the Cascade Point discussion. Remember, he originally proposed a board in which all members were to be appointed by the governor. In other words, a board to rubber stamp his agenda.

Furthermore, his discussions about AMHS have never included residents in communities who, until he became governor, were able to depend on reasonably reliable ferry service. And he’s not interested in what residents of Juneau, Haines and Skagway think of moving the ferry terminal from Auke Bay to Cascade Point for sailings in Lynn Canal.

Under Dunleavy’s direction, DOT hasn’t and doesn’t intend to properly analyze the economic feasibility of the Cascade Point project. They’ve made it impossible for the AMHOB to fulfill its legislatively defined mission to “provide advice and recommendations … concerning the operation and management of the Alaska Marine Highway System … regarding business to enhance revenue and reduce costs.”

Both the House and the Senate voted unanimously to create the AMHOB. It’s time they stop allowing Dunleavy to make a mockery of it. And them.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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