State funds could help rebuild harbors

Boat facilities turned over to communities need significant work

Posted: Monday, April 24, 2006

A walk around the Douglas Small Boat Harbor displays an interesting juxtaposition of crisp, shiny new marine accommodations sitting alongside a decrepit, crumbling corpse of a dock. Rusty electrical plugs, lopsided floats and worn-down poles lumber mere feet away from sparkling electrical panels, sturdy floats and galvanized steel piles.

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It is the epitome of what was and what could be. In recent years, Juneau has taken possession of four main small boat harbors and four smaller docks from the state. The city doubled the size of the Douglas harbor, connecting the bright new accommodations to the dilapidated docks it adopted.

Tentative plans are underway to give the old section a makeover.

The harbors are used by leisure boaters and charter operations as well as by a small fleet of commercial fishermen, and contribute to the local economy.

But all the facilities the state had owned had a laundry list of problems, including rotting boards, dangerously steep gangways and power transformers that tended to catch fire.

"They were toast, pretty much done," said Juneau's harbormaster John Stone. "Most of the harbors were at the end of their useful life."

Dozens of communities across the state's coastal regions have a similar story.

The state owned 110 harbors. Alan Sorum, Valdez port director and past president of the Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Administrators, said the state has transferred at least 55 harbors to 23 communities. It has at least 40 more on a list to transfer in coming years.

Collectively, members of the state's harbormaster association say it will cost at least $100 million to fix their facilities. That's in addition to the $65 million the state has issued them for deferred maintenance after the transfers of ownership. "The issue is fairly serious, especially as communities get a grip on what they have to deal with," Sorum said.

Two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, would offer matching funds to pay for upgrades. The state Department of Transportation would administer the funds.

In Juneau, the state offered $7 million toward fixing the deferred maintenance issues if the city would take ownership of the facilities. Valdez was offered $3 million.

And while the communities knew the harbors were in bad shape and the state money wouldn't be enough to pay for the upgrades, they didn't have much choice but to take ownership.

"They pretty much said take it or leave it," said Stone, the current Harbormasters Association president. "If we didn't want it, they would put it up for the highest bidder."

"I don't know of any communities willing to give up control of their harbors," Sorum said. "In Valdez, we know the harbor is a more important economic engine than the outside oil industry. It was not reasonable to think we would let the state hand it over to some other entity."


About 10 years ago, the state Department of Transportation determined it wanted to get out of the harbor business.

The state already had deals with dozens of local municipalities to operate harbors, some built more than 60 years ago. While the state owned these facilities, the Legislature rarely appropriated money for major maintenance or renovations.

User fees generally paid for basic, routine maintenance, but contracts with the state forbade raising fees for major overhauls, said John MacKinnon, deputy commissioner of DOT's highways and public facilities.

"Harbors were managed by the local governments, but were not well managed," he said. "The management agreements were poorly done. For the state to step in and manage the harbors, we would have had to build a huge bureaucracy. It just made sense for the local governments to run them."

So the state began offering local communities the chance to own their local harbors. The harbors are offered up as is, with a check to bring the facilities up to acceptable levels, MacKinnon said.

Problem is, what the state deems acceptable differs wildly from what the communities say they need.

Money offered to the communities is determined using a formula, the basis of which comes from a maintenance survey conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1990s. It is adjusted slightly for inflation.

But harbormasters say the funding levels cover only about half of the need, as it doesn't take into account the higher costs for materials. It also doesn't factor in the idea that sometimes it's cheaper to rebuild than it is to renovate.

"The state is supposed to transfer harbors to the communities in good condition or give them funds to get them in good condition," Sorum said. "But this has gone on so long, things have changed."

MacKinnon agreed, but added rebuilding doesn't have to cost as much as communities claim. He noted the Douglas harbor as a good example. The old part of the harbor offered the basics for mooring a boat - a place to park and plug in. It didn't have a lot of bells and whistles.

"If the state were to reconstruct the floats, it would rebuild it like the old floats," he said. "Those new floats are absolutely beautiful, with a lot of extra amenities. But consider the differences in the costs of the facilities; it's the difference between a Chevrolet and a Mercedes."

The House and Senate bills moving through committees would help communities bring their harbors to their own standards by offering 50 percent matching grants. The measures, if passed, would establish a capital improvement program for harbor facilities with a matching grant program. Grants would fund only major maintenance and capital improvements.

The program would be funded by using the state's share of the fisheries business tax and a portion of the watercraft fuel tax.

To receive a grant, a municipality must have access to its half of the cost of the proposed project, and must show that it has a preventative maintenance plan for its facility. Cities cannot receive more than $5 million a year through the program.

"It's a great mechanism for the harbors to stay up to snuff," MacKinnon said. "It will also provide added incentives for additional transfers to occur."

Juneau has done a lot of work already to improve its harbors, but is holding off on future work to see if the bills pass, Stone said.

The initial $7 million the city received with the transfer, along with money raised through community-approved revenue bonds and raising the moorage rates across the board, allowed Juneau to double the size of the Douglas harbor, completely rebuild the Harris harbor and renovate some of the smaller docks on the outskirts of town.

Stone said it will take another $17 million to finish upgrading the city's harbors.

A number of the state-owned harbors and docks probably will never be transferred. MacKinnon noted that several docks are located in isolated areas where no local entity exists.

MacKinnon said the state has held talks with the state Department of Natural Resources, which owns the uplands around several of these isolated docks, to come up with ideas to transfer ownership to some other entity.

One idea, he said, is to issue proposals to allow a private organization to put a fishing lodge in those areas. The lodge owners would be responsible for the upkeep of the floats, and keep them open for public access.


Harbors across the coast are raising fees to help pay for the upgrades and remodels to their harbors. In many areas, fees across the board have doubled.

Juneau's harbormaster, Stone, said his moorage fees alone have gone from about $900 to $2,000 in the past three years.

Boat owners aren't happy.

Stone, along with port engineer Mike Krieber and Docks and Harbors board chair Bud Simpson, took a visitor on a tour of the Douglas harbor recently.

The group barely got to the end of the gangway before two boat-owners stopped them to relate their most recent problems with the electricity to their boats. With the higher fees, they wondered why such problems still exist.

"We're working on it," Stone told them. "We're thinking next summer we can replace the old docks out here. We're waiting on the Legislature, though."

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