The state's proposal to build a new ferry operation in Berners Bay may involve greater hurdles than the controversial Kensington gold mine ferry shuttle that is already planned there.
State Marine Transportation Director Robin Taylor said this week he would like to buy two new day boats and send them between Juneau's Cascade Point, a small promontory in Berners Bay, and Haines and Skagway.
"With any luck, it would happen two years down the road," Taylor said.
The advantages would be to run quicker service from Juneau to Haines or Skagway, and mainline ferries would not have to serve north Lynn Canal but instead return south from Juneau. Communities south of Juneau could get up to 30 percent more service, Taylor said.
Officials with federal agencies, local governments and Goldbelt - which owns the land and is planning to build a Cascade Point shuttle ferry terminal for workers accessing the proposed mine across the bay - expressed some surprise at Taylor's idea.
The concept is not included in the state's regional transportation plan, said Robert Venables, manager of the Haines Borough.
"On the surface, it definitely has issues that need better explanation and research," Venables said.
For example, if day boats turn around in Berners Bay, walk-on passengers would have trouble getting to town or between Cascade Point and mainline state ferries docked in Auke Bay.
"Every mile away from the community core makes it more difficult to (serve walk-on passengers)," Venables said.
Cascade Point is more than 40 road miles from downtown Juneau. The Auke Bay ferry terminal, on the same route, is 14 miles from downtown.
About 45 percent of the state ferry system's summer and spring traffic is from walk-on passengers. It drops to 39 percent in the winter, according to a 2000 study by Juneau's McDowell Group consulting firm.
Taylor said walk-on distances are something that communities scattered throughout Southeast Alaska, such as Craig and Thorne Bay, have dealt with for 30 years. Often, the private sector fills the gap or passengers catch rides with others who brought vehicles on board, he said.
The state of Alaska also would face some big permitting obstacles and debate about harm to marine life in Berners Bay.
"We'd have potential concern about (additional) docking structures and increased vessel activity," said Jon Kurland, regional habitat division director for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"We'd be concerned about impacts to marine mammals and forage fish," Kurland added.
The state doesn't have the authority to operate shuttle ferries at Cascade Point - at least not now, said John Leeds, manager of the Army Corps of Engineers' Juneau field office.
It's a much bigger project than Goldbelt's support operation for Kensington Mine, and there may be some difficulty in siting a dock for large vessels because of water depths, Leeds said.
The Goldbelt dock "is not meant for vehicles," Leeds added.
Goldbelt consultant Randy Wanamaker agreed that the planned dock is not suitable for day boat use. Goldbelt will consider a new dock "if (the state) makes a formal proposal," he said.
Wanamaker, also a Juneau Assembly member, said he didn't know the state was even considering the idea until he heard that it was published in Wednesday newspapers.
Officials with the Corps of Engineers and National Marine Fisheries Service also said they did not know the state was considering the idea.
Cascade Point has been a locus for controversy regarding the Kensington Mine for several years.
It is a spawning area for Lynn Canal's remnant herring stock and nursery area for many other fish species.
Goldbelt, Juneau's urban Native corporation, is seeking permission from the Corps of Engineers to operate a small dock, fueling station and two shuttle ferries to carry Kensington Mine workers.
Due to local fears about harm to marine life in Berners Bay from Goldbelt operations, the city and the state loaded Goldbelt's permit and tidelands lease with special requirements.
For example, the mine shuttles may not travel to and from Cascade Point during herring spawning periods. Fueling may not occur during the period when herring eggs are hatching.
Also, mine-related vessel traffic in Berners Bay will be heavily monitored during the bay's spring hooligan run, which attracts hordes of Steller sea lions, whales and other predators.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still reviewing its permit for Goldbelt's dock operation and hasn't released a date for completing its review.
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