State drops Southeast ferry study

DOT Southeast director says changes in LeConte schedule killed research

Posted: Thursday, September 14, 2006

State officials say they will not finish a study of northern Southeast transportation options.

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They also have delayed studying a road route to a new Sitka ferry terminal, but they're moving ahead with research for a road connecting the central Panhandle to Canada.

About two years ago, state officials started considering what could be done to improve transportation in northcentral Southeast, looking at options for Sitka, Petersburg, Juneau and smaller towns served by the ferry LeConte.

Officials hired contractor CH2M Hill, held public meetings and began research. But the work, once estimated to take about a year, was never finished.

Transportation Department Southeast Director Mal Menzies said changes in the LeConte schedule killed the study.

"Because of loss and gain of operations in the ferry system, it doesn't make sense for us to continue that study as it was going," Menzies said.

Marine highway officials switched the LeConte's route in June after the U.S. Coast Guard decided the ferry's schedule did not allow enough rest for employees, which could lead to accidents.

The small ferry is now based in Juneau, making day trips to Angoon, Hoonah and Haines. But it no longer sails among the villages, or to Sitka or Petersburg.

The Juneau-based Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, which is critical of state Transportation Department operations, said the changes mean the LeConte-route study should be completed.

"It's a crying shame that the state is canceling a study right at the moment that all of these communities are really searching for alternatives and a way to provide service to and from their towns," said ATPP staffer Emily Ferry.

The contract with CH2M Hill was for about $551,850. Transportation Department Southeast Regional Planning Chief Andy Hughes said the final amount paid will depend on how much work was done, which hasn't been determined.

The canceled project, called the Northern Panhandle Transportation Study, was linked to the Sitka Access Study, designed to shorten ferry travel out of the Baranof Island community.

That $683,000 project is ongoing, but is more than a year behind schedule. Menzies said the initial information-gathering phase will not be completed for about another five months. He said the problem is personnel, not priorities.

"It's just the workload and probably too many duties and low staff both departmental-wise and also consultant-wise throughout the state of Alaska," he said.

The access study, also using consultant CH2M Hill, is looking at roads to three sites for a new Sitka ferry terminal. All would shorten sailing time and eliminate runs through Sergius Narrows, which has strong tidal currents that delay ferry sailings.

One terminal would be at Rodman Bay, off Peril Strait, about 25 miles to the north. The others would end at Kelp and Warm Springs Bays, on Chatham Strait, about 20 miles to the east.

The study has brought mixed reactions in Sitka. Opponents say a longer road to a new ferry terminal would damage wilderness areas and make travel inconvenient. Supporters say it would save time and promote commerce.

"That gives you more service stops or ferry stops, but it also increases drive time to Sitka," said City Administrator John Stein. "Frankly, it's very convenient and very handy to have the boat land in town."

Stein said he has no problem delaying the access study if it leads to better information.

State transportation officials are also studying a new road corridor in south-central Southeast. The route would connect the Bradfield Canal, between Ketchikan and Wrangell, with British Columbia's mainland road system.

Canadian officials had been reluctant to support the road, which could compete with their own highways and ports. Menzies said that's changed.

"Now the Canadians have agreed with the study, they're going to work jointly with us and the study's going forward," he said.

The Legislature's capital budget included $2 million for the road study. Hughes said that brings the total to $9.7 million appropriated for the project. Another $3.2 million was allocated this year to study of a power line expected to follow the same route.

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