Brenda Tolman, owner of Log Cabin Gifts in Whittier, knows business has been down since the state started charging a toll to drive through the tunnel to Whittier. Her coin-operated reindeer food dispenser tells her so.
This summer her two reindeer, Elizabeth and baby Jolie, which she keeps in a pen along the side of her gift shop, haven't been getting fed as often. That means fewer families with young children are coming to town, she said last weekend.
After the 2.5-mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel opened Whittier to road traffic last June, the former military base turned tourist destination on Prince William Sound saw a jump in summer visitors.
The tunnel was free that first season, a sort of introductory offer. But in April the state began charging a toll: $15 for cars, $40 for motor homes and trailers, and $125 for buses and big rigs.
Some don't mind the toll, some vociferously oppose it, and some don't think the tunnel should have been opened to cars in the first place. Residents agree, though, that traffic and business have dropped off this summer and that the toll is to blame.
"It's hurting the hell out of this town," said Brad Phillips, owner of Phillips' Cruises and Tours. Last year he was getting 30 to 40 walk-up customers a day, he said. It was the first time that had happened in the 17 years he has operated out of Whittier.
Now, he said, "Eighty percent of the motor homes turn around when they see it costs $40 to come through the tunnel," and walk-up business for his $119 glacier-view cruise has dropped off.
In its first year, 118,125 vehicles traveled the tunnel to Whittier, said state Department of Transportation spokesman Murph O'Brien. At an average of two to three people per car, that's an estimated 250,000 to 350,000 visitors.
It is two or three times as many as used to come through the tunnel when it only was used by the Alaska Railroad, but is far less than the 430,000 to 1.2 million annual visitors the state predicted in justifying the $86 million cost of the tunnel project.
Anticipating crowds, Whittier built about 500 new parking spaces along the railroad tracks bisecting the town, and installed half a dozen new portable toilets.
Last summer "seems to have gone better than we anticipated," said Mayor Ben Butler. Crowding was not a problem, he said, and Whittier had one of its best summer business seasons ever, with sales tax revenues up 70 percent to 80 percent from the summer before.
This summer is shaping up to be much slower, Butler said. Though hard figures won't be available until the end of the summer, he guessed that sales tax revenues for this June will be half of what they were last year.
Whittier has taken its unhappiness over the toll to the Legislature. Three bills introduced for next year's session would turn the tunnel operations over to the town, exempt townsfolk from the toll, or do away with the toll entirely.
"We're still part of the state highway system," Butler said. "We shouldn't be taxed further by a toll."
DOT is holding firm on the tolls, O'Brien said. Tolls are part of the original plan to help pay part of the roughly $3 million per year it costs to operate and maintain the tunnel.
"The tunnel facility provided more dependable, frequent year-round access to Whittier," he said. "The tolls were part of that equation."
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