Whittier Tunnel plans raise concerns

Posted: Monday, March 13, 2000

WHITTIER - From hauling out fish to bringing in the mail, residents of this Prince William Sound community are anxious to learn when they can drive through the Whittier Tunnel and how much it will cost.

The tunnel pierces mountains separating the former military base from the Southcentral Alaska road system. It's scheduled to open to vehicle traffic in three months and the Alaska Department of Transportation is trying to work out regulations and develop a schedule that satisfies residents, the Alaska Railroad and the tourist industry. Currently, only trains make the passage.

Jerry Protzman, one of about three dozen people attending a recent public hearing in Whittier, asked DOT officials why trucks would be moved to the back of the line, behind cars and buses, as traffic is routed through the 2-mile tunnel through the Chugach Mountains.

``If I've got a load of fresh fish, why do I have to be the last to go?'' asked Protzman, owner of Dojer Ltd., which transports fish for several Prince William Sound canneries.

Traffic through the one-lane tunnel will alternate between vehicles headed to Whittier and those leaving. The tunnel will also be used by the Alaska Railroad, which will have priority over vehicle traffic. No bicycles or pedestrians will be allowed.

``We're trying to balance the needs of a number of people,'' said Tom Moses, one of DOT's project managers.

The Alaska Railroad passenger service currently offered between Portage and Whittier will cease when the tunnel opens to vehicles on June 7, railroad spokesman Scott Banks said.

DOT officials have decided not to collect tunnel tolls until April 1, 2001, because tour operators said they needed more advance notice of how much the trip will cost in order to price tour packages for the upcoming tourist season.

The free ride during the tunnel's first summer of operation has Whittier City Manager Carrie Williams worried.

``I am horrified that you're going to let everybody come through that tunnel without tolls. We have no facilities to handle them. We're going to be overrun,'' Williams said.

Charging tolls immediately would help Whittier pay for restrooms and emergency services. With the opening of the tunnel, this town of about 280 residents expects up to 1.2 million visitors annually, most of them in summer.

The proposed toll schedule runs from $15 roundtrip for passenger vehicles to $125 for tractor-trailers and buses carrying 30 or more people.

Because the toll would be charged only to vehicles going into Whittier, not those leaving, vehicles that get off the state ferry in Whittier would not have to pay to use the tunnel. The proposed rate schedule would also offer books of tickets at a discount.

Whittier residents say they would like to be able to buy a yearly pass and several of those at the meeting suggested residents should be given a discount.

The proposed schedule calls for the tunnel to be open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. during summer. Winter hours would be shorter.

Suzanne Eusden, the U.S. Postal Service contractor in Whittier, said she's concerned a system of 15-minute windows for vehicle traffic through the tunnel won't allow enough time for a mail truck to reach Whittier, unload the mail and go back through the tunnel.

``The mail comes in at 7:30 a.m. Will the driver be stuck here until the next opening at 11 a.m.? For a 2 mile ride that's a long time to sit, pick up mail and get out,'' said Eusden. ``All of us in the postal service are looking to have a yearly schedule so we can have a predictable flow of mail.''

The Transportation Department is taking public comment on the proposed tolls and schedule through Friday.

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