City plans new dock for mega cruise ships

As larger vessels become an industry norm, Docks and Harbors Board seeks ways to increase capacity

Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2007

The face of Juneau's picturesque waterfront could undergo big changes in the next several years.

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Officials say the city's downtown cruise ship dock needs major work and think replacement is more prudent than costly repairs.

But finding a plan the city and industry can agree upon, as well as how to fund the $40 million project, could take a while.

The city Docks and Harbors Board has created a plan to construct two floating berths 200 feet off the existing city-owned dock near Marine Park that could accommodate two Panamax cruise ships. As it is now, the city can accommodate one Panamax vessel - a classification of boats built to the maximum allowable dimensions to fit through the Panama Canal, or 965 feet - and one smaller cruise ship.

"We have been looking for years at how to increase the capacity, in terms of having two or three of those ships being able to dock at the same time," Docks and Harbors Board member Jim Preston said.

Several other plans also have been discussed, including constructing a $27 million dock near Gold Creek that would accommodate one Panamax vessel.

Before construction could begin, the project would have to go before various city committees and ultimately the Juneau Assembly, but the Docks and Harbors Board has said it would like the new docks to be ready for the 2010 season.

Bigger ships, bigger docks

When the downtown docks were built, it wasn't envisioned that the cruise ships mooring there would become so large, but now that the Panamax vessels are becoming the industry norm, the docks need to be upgraded, Preston said.

The wooden dock these large cruise ships are tying up to wasn't designed to accommodate such large vessels, Harbormaster Lou McCall said.

"The problem we have with the city dock, is when the cruise ships come in, over time they cause damage, and it costs a lot of money to refurbish those docks, more so than putting in what we have planned," he said.

A study was done earlier this year that contends the wooden pilings of the dock are rotting and weathering. They could cost the city more than $10 million to replace. Building a $40 million-plus metal dock would be considerably cheaper in the long run than continuing costs associated with maintaining or replacing the wooden pilings, McCall said.

"In a water environment, in a rain forest in freezing and thawing conditions, it's going to be a nonstop battle," he said.

North West Cruiseship Association President John Hansen said the industry agrees the city dock is in need of work, but said it is not yet sold on any particular plan.

"We think it's important to move forward with a project in the future. It will be needed in the future," he said. "The question is what is the best facility for the long term. We're anxious to work with the city."

Finding a way to pay

One of the big questions is how to fund the project. The Docks and Harbors Finance Committee approved a motion on Thursday night for a revised port improvement fee.

The proposal would increase the tonnage rate charged to vessels using the dock. If passed by the Docks and Harbors Board and then by the Juneau Assembly, the fee would increase from 5½ cents per net registered ton to 10 cents per ton in 2008. The fee would then go to 20 cents per ton in 2009 and further increase to 30 cents per ton in 2010.

Preston, the Finance Committee chairman, said a fee increase is needed to fund the project.

"The idea is, by the time the third year comes around, we will have built up a little nest egg to do more than talk about these improvements that are in the works," he said. "If we don't have the money, we can't do it."

Hansen said the cruise ship industry has concerns about the increased fees prior to having a firm grasp of how the money will be spent.

"We think it is better to have the plan first before starting to collect money," he said.

The plan presented by the city would essentially provide an increase of half a length of a cruise ship for a hefty price tag that the industry would ultimately pay, Hansen said.

"There certainly are some questions around it," he said. "It's very expensive."

Docks and Harbors Board member Budd Simpson said new docks would allow some of the cruise ships that are anchoring in Gastineau Channel to dock and passengers would not have to be lightered to shore. Constructing the new docks would not mean more boats on any given day, but would provide greater efficiency, he said.

"We're looking at the ease of access, getting a ship in and out and getting the passengers transferred safely and efficiently," he said.

That also could allow passengers to spend more time shopping, dining or going on shore excursions, Simpson said.

Growing security measures

Another factor for constructing new docks off the existing one is to address security regulations, Preston said. Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Coast Guard has implemented buffer areas around cruise ships and has partitioned off areas of the dock.

"If you're down there in the summer, more and more is getting taken away for security stuff, which we have no choice on," Preston said.

McCall said the Homeland Security restrictions seem to increase every year and there could very well be a day when the Coast Guard restricts even larger areas of the wharf. Constructing new docks would allow for more public access to the wharf, he said.

"It opens up the public dock and gives it back to the people, and to me, that's enough," McCall said.

Aaron Brakel, a Juneau resident who has been following the issue closely, said he is worried about how the new docks are going to look and that they could take away from the community.

"We have a tremendous treasure in our downtown dock," Brakel said. "You walk along that dock and it's open to the other side of the channel. It's a wonderful view and it's open to all of us."

New docks would allow greater access to the existing one during the summer, but it would be at the expense of losing the priceless view during the off-season, he said.

"The docks proposal is likely biting off more than the community is willing to chew," Brakel said.

• Contact Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or

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