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Ferry board weighs in on SE transportation plan

New Berners Bay ferry terminal among suggestions for cost savings, new expenditures

Posted: October 19, 2011 - 12:03am

The state Department of Transportation & Public Facilities predicts it will have less money to spend on ferry service in the future, and wants suggestions about where cuts can be made in its new Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan.

The Marine Transportation Advisory Board will instead recommend more spending, although some of that spending is intended to help reduce costs in the future.

The Department’s Southeast Region planners are currently holding a series of public meetings to explain the plan around Southeast. Public comments are due by Nov. 4.

The board will send a letter outlining suggestions for the things it considers most important, such as maintaining service to Bellingham and across the Gulf of Alaska and building a new mainliner replacement ferry and one additional Alaska-class ferry.

Some of the bold propositions in the letter, developed by the board last week, include consideration of a new ferry terminal at Berners Bay and a road across Baranof Island to shorten the lengthy ferry run to Sitka.

The MTAB decided road links “should be built where appropriate and possible to shorten ferry runs and create an efficient transportation system,” said Robert Venables, the board’s chairman.

Venables, of Haines, said the board didn’t expect all of its suggestions would be immediately incorporated in the plan or eventually be built.

“Keep in mind this is a 20-year plan, with focus on the next five years until the next update, but the focus is on meeting the needs of population and traffic over the next 20 years,” he said.

Creating a new ferry terminal north of Juneau at Berners Bay would expand options for ferry service in Lynn Canal, he said.

The shorter distance between Berners Bay and Haines and Skagway would possibly allow two daily runs within 12 hours by a single crew, reducing operating costs significantly.

The difficulty, he acknowledged, was the distance from downtown Juneau. The board said its support for the Berners Bay terminal would also have to have an “inherent public transportation component to support walk-on ferry passengers.”

Venables said that would be necessary to make it work.

“You can’t just leave people stranded however many miles away that is — it’s tough enough to getting in from Auke Bay as it is,” he said.

A Berners Bay terminal might have other hurdles besides distance. It was one of the options considered during the state’s decision to build the Juneau Access Project, the road between Auke Bay and a new ferry terminal at the Katzehin River and shuttle ferries to Haines and Skagway.

That Environmental Impact Statement considered a Berners Bay terminal, but noted that the National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Department of Fish & Game and Environmental Protection Agency all had concerns about impacts on herring spawning habitat, along with Steller sea lions and humpback whales.

Another project being looked at is the road from Sitka to a new ferry terminal on Chatham Strait, dramatically shortening ferry runs. That project was most recently estimated to cost $290 million to the Baranof Warm Springs.

The MTAB comment letter doesn’t call for building the new road within the 20 years, but only funding for its design phase.

One project not specifically listed as a priority by MTAB is a road between Kake and Petersburg, which could allow more efficiencies as well.

The state’s most recent cost estimate for that project is $190 million, according to the department.

The board also looked at some shorter-term goals, including inclusion of crucial ferry system investments in the next fiscal year’s budget.

That includes operational funding at current levels, repowering the Columbia, continuing the Alaska-class ferry construction, new engines for the fast ferries and regular appropriations into the vessel replacement fund.

“These specific line items will allow the Alaska Marine Highway System to provide much needed transportation services within the region and the state,” Venables said the board believed.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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