DOT: Ferry system move under preliminary review

Posted: Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The Alaska Marine Highway System is reviewing a proposal to move its administrative operations from Juneau to Ketchikan, but state Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Tom Briggs said the analysis is "very preliminary."

Briggs said Ketchikan Borough Mayor Mike Salazar sent DOT a proposal on Sept. 25 to move AMHS headquarters to the largely vacant former Ketchikan Pulp Mill Co. administration building.

"It's still just a preliminary idea that the borough mayor proposed," Briggs said. "We are carefully analyzing it and trying to assess the benefits."

Briggs said he expects to provide DOT Commissioner Mike Barton with a recommendation in early November on whether to pursue additional studies on the proposal.

The move would cost the state about $500,000 and affect some 30 AMHS employees, Briggs said.

One of several options proposed by Salazar would provide the borough-owned facility rent-free to the state for two years. Salazar did not provide concrete numbers on the cost.

Briggs said moving AMHS would give state ferry engineers and managers better access to ships at Alaska Ship and Drydock and ships ported at Ward Cove, but the plan might not be cost effective.

"We have the Columbia there and we're moving the Kennicott in for a couple of months this winter," Briggs said.

Juneau Mayor Sally Smith said it still is early to begin lobbying against the proposal.

"I think it's premature to begin drawing battle lines," Smith said. "If we get a sense that it's going to be pursued, then I think we need to gear up."

Smith said she was not contacted by Ketchikan Borough Mayor Salazar before he submitted the proposal.

"I am disappointed that Mike turned this in without us seeing a copy and alerting us," she said. "We certainly want to see Ketchikan succeed and the region succeed, but we need to succeed together."

Salazar said the borough has been looking to utilize the Ketchikan Pulp Mill since it closed in 1996, even if it means taking jobs from Juneau.

"I have an obligation as the mayor to do something with this facility," he said.

Meilani Schijvens, a member of DOT's Marine Transportation Advisory Board, said the group has not taken a formal position on the issue, but noted that a preliminary analysis shows the proposal does not appear to be affordable.

Schijvens said a similar attempt to move AMHS headquarters to Ketchikan in 1997 was dropped because of cost.

DOT's review of the 1997 plan stated: "The benefits of moving AMHS administrative offices do not justify the substantial fixed costs of the move or the additional operational costs and complexity created by the move."

The report also noted that improved communication between employees in Ketchikan and managers in Juneau would be far outweighed by losses to communication between AMHS management and their counterparts in DOT and state government.

Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, said he already has discussed the issue with Briggs and voiced his concerns.

"I suggested that there are some things that needed to be done if he was moving forward to react to the proposal," Elton said.

Elton said the decision should not be made by one elected official, noting that the Ketchikan Borough Assembly has not taken a formal position on the proposal.

"You need to involve elected officials from the donor city," he said. "You also need to involve a regional entity that is best designed to look at it."

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