Empire editorial: Floating docks plan should move forward

Posted: Sunday, December 09, 2007

The city's Docks and Harbors' proposal to build two floating piers parallel to downtown's existing cruise ship dock makes sense for several reasons.

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The current wooden dock was never designed to accommodate modern cruise ships, according to Harbormaster Lou McCall. As ships moor downtown, over time they damage the structure, which is already weathered and rotting.

The harbormaster argues the city would get a better return on its money if it held off spending $10 million to replace the wooden dock, because the continuing costs of maintenance would be considerably more over time. The city would actually save money long-term if it spent $40 million-plus on the Docks and Harbors' proposal.

The plan is to construct two floating platforms connected to robust metal pilings, which would allow the piers to rise and fall with the tide. The berths would be attached to the waterfront by ramps.

The floating piers would accommodate two large Panamax vessels, the industry standard based on what can transit the Panama Canal, or 965 feet. Juneau's current dock can only accommodate one Panamax ship and a vessel about half the size.

Large-scale construction projects, such as the Sunny Point intersection and Thunder Mountain High School, have helped buoy Juneau's economy. If the city were to sign off on the cruise ship dock improvements, it would help continue this trend.

Plus, bigger ships mean more tourists and more money in the city's coffers through its sales tax. A 1 percent temporary sales tax extension passed in October is helping the city pay for a sewer service extension, Auke Bay harbor renovations, municipal building maintenance and a new Public Works Department shop. More tourists could translate into even more municipal improvements.

The burden of paying for the cruise ship dock improvements, under the Docks and Harbors' proposal, would fall to the cruise ship industry. The 30-year bonds necessary to pay for the berths would be paid off through increased cruise ship fees.

The city charges cruise ships using its dock a $3-per-foot fee in addition to a 5 ½ cent fee per registered ton. The proposal would in three gradual phases raise the fee per registered ton to 30 cents by 2010.

Although the cruise ship industry welcomes dock improvements, it's understandably cool to a sixfold fee hike. Nevertheless, there's undoubtedly room to negotiate with the industry to make the floating docks a reality.

This proposal is better than what appears to be the industry's preferred alternative - a cruise ship dock at Gold Creek in the Subport area. Past community surveys have shown that 55 percent of Juneau residents oppose a Gold Creek dock out of concerns for traffic congestion and possible environmental effects. There are better uses for the Subport area than building cruise ship docks.

The floating piers don't necessarily mean an increase in the number of boats the city sees each day during the cruise ship season. Some cruise ships anchor in Gastineau Channel and must lighter their passengers to shore. The new piers could eliminate the need for this and more efficiently handle passengers.

If the city built the floating piers, it also would increase public access to the current dock. Access has been increasingly curtailed by more and more stringent security regulations. Port Director John Stone has said the Coast Guard's ever-expanding security zone around cruise ships could eventually take over the whole dock.

By moving the ships away from the current dock, the public will again have unfettered access to the port. That is reason enough to build the floating piers.

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