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Alaska Develops Ports Central to Local Economies

Pacific Pile & Marine at work on the Statter Harbor Moorage Improvements project for the City and Borough of Juneau.

Pacific Pile & Marine at work on the Statter Harbor Moorage Improvements project for the City and Borough of Juneau.

Photo courtesy of Pacific Pile & Marine

Alaska has more miles of seacoast—6,640—than any other state in the United States. The number two state is Florida at 1,350 miles of seacoast. If you count in tidelands, Alaskans have direct access to the ocean from about 34,000 miles of coast. A lot of that coast is rocky and forbidding and some of it is frozen for a large part of the year.

That said, it is no wonder that Alaskan towns have clustered in naturally-protected places on the seacoast—or in inland places with river access to the ocean. Most of the freight into Alaska comes by ship and much of Alaska’s production of natural resources flows out that way. For Alaska Natives living along the coast, the sea is their main source of traditional foods. Rescue boats can venture into weather that keeps airplanes grounded. Richard Kochuten, the harbormaster of Sand Point, says the harbor in his Alaska Peninsula fishing town is “the goose that lays the golden egg.”

 

Capital Ports

After retiring from the U.S. Coast Guard in Juneau, Carl Uchytil took the job as port director of the Capital City’s ports. The size of Juneau’s harbor system is impressive: four massive cruise ship docks downtown, a small boat harbor in Douglas, two boat harbors along Egan Drive, and a small boat harbor in Auke Bay, near where most of Juneau’s population now lives.

“There’s $120 million in projects going through the harbor and dock system,” says Uchytil.

Two of Juneau’s cruise ship docks are city-owned and those are scheduled for replacement. Uchytil says plans are to replace the present wharf-style arrangement with floating docks. Construction on the first floating dock is to begin in October 2014, to be completed by May of 2015. The second new dock will be built starting in October 2015, to be completed the following May.

The timing is to avoid further complicating the Juneau waterfront in summer when hundreds of thousands of visitors arrive by ship and flood the downtown waterfront. “You have to keep an eye on the needs of the harbor patrons and the tourism industry and build during an Alaskan winter,” Uchytil says.

At Auke Bay, city officials held a ribbon-cutting ceremony May 15 on the $8.5 million dollar replacement of a portion of Don Statter Harbor. Pacific Pile & Marine, LP performed the work, which included removing and replacing wooden floats with concrete floats, replacing portions of the gangway, and replacing a portion of the headwalk. There were repairs to two floats and the breakwater where large rubber fenders and long through-rods will be replaced to extend the harbor’s functional life.

Also at Statter Harbor, plans are to upgrade the boat launch and do extensive work on the associated uplands. With Juneau’s population now largely in the Mendenhall Valley, the Statter Harbor boat launch is the most heavily used of the city’s six launches. To deal with the congestion that can occur on a sunny Saturday morning, the city plans to extend the parking lot and to put in “make ready” and “tie down” areas for boat owners to do their pre- and post-launch chores and keep the launching moving more smoothly. Port directors have to begin considering the launch ramps more these days, since there is a trend toward people trailering their boats instead of renting a slip.

“There are 1,300 boat slips in the four municipal harbors,” Uchytil says. “But the city sells 2,000 trailer permits (per year).”

In the works is a replacement of Aurora Harbor on the waterfront across from Juneau-Douglas High School. In October 2012, Juneau voters approved a $7 million bond issue and the city will match a $2 million grant from the state Municipal Harbor Grant Fund, for a total of $11 million, which will take care of half the needed upgrades.

“It will be a total of $22 million to replace the entire harbor, which is well past its useful life,” Uchytil says. “We are going to bid (the first half) in early January 2014, award it in February, with the construction to be complete in May 2015.”

 

Yukon ‘Gold’

North of Juneau is Skagway, a small town with very big plans.

The Gateway Project would transform the Port of Skagway to help capitalize on the burgeoning mining industry in the Canadian Yukon. With a twenty-four-hour, year-round road connection with Canada, Skagway Mayor Stan Selmer says his hometown is the natural place for valuable Canadian metal ore and concentrates to be loaded on ships.

“In 2008 Skagway formed a master plan based on what planners perceived as the potential mines that could open in the Yukon and also some in eastern Alaska that would have products that would need to get to market through a port,” Selmer says. “We had anticipated that Skagway could be that port and we still believe that.”

The estimate for replacement of the dock—used for both cruise and cargo ships—as well as uplands and intermodal capabilities, ranges from $30 million to $80 million. The city presently has $16.5 million and Selmer says the project will be done in phases as funding is secured.

A key part of the project will be to upgrade the ore terminal, which is owned and operated by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. Selmer says the cost of the renovation of the terminal and the purchase of a new more-efficient loader is estimated at $65 million, which he says the Authority already has on hand.

Right now, tens of thousands of tons of Yukon copper concentrates are shipped through Skagway annually. The city is planning for huge increase in the next few years, with the potential for hundreds of thousands of tons of Canadian zinc, copper, lead, gold, silver, and iron ore brought down the highway. Skagway is also hoping to become the port for mines in eastern Alaska. Selmer hopes this could lead to more Skagway jobs and tax revenues.

“Certainly, we all have to be aware of the volatility of metal prices,” says Selmer, remembering the price crashes in the 1980s. Nonetheless, he’s confident in the Gateway Project, even in the face of the complicated negotiations that will have to occur between the Yukon government, the State of Alaska, the White Pass Railroad and the Municipality of Skagway—all which have interests in the facility.

“In a year we will have a design that is in the direction we want to proceed,” he says.

 

Pacific Pile & Marine will continue work on the Carl E. Moses Small Boat Harbor for the City of Unalaska this year.

Photo courtesy of Pacific Pile & Marine

 

Pacific Pile & Marine working on the Carl E. Moses Small Boat Harbor for the City of Unalaska.

Photo courtesy of Pacific Pile & Marine

 

Fish and Ferries

In Hydaburg on Prince of Wales Island, the city harbor is to be replaced this summer. Hydaburg Mayor Tony Christianson is pleased that fortune and good planning are going to result in a facelift to what he called his town’s “number one asset.”

“Mainly Hydaburg [residents] are gatherers and most of our food base is marine,” Christianson says. “The focus of our community is gathering marine resources and providing good food and nutrition for our kids.”

Hydaburg Harbor also contains a small fleet of commercial salmon seiners and hosts some charter boats in the summertime for tourists wanting “to get off the beaten path.”

The $3.6 million harbor project is to begin this summer, with the work to be done by Pacific Pile. The Hydaburg Cooperative Association, the federally-recognized tribe, is to help with some upland improvements that could raise the total price for the project to $4 million.

Chistianson says the city got lucky by pushing for state harbor matching funds last year when there was a state focus on funding harbors. Their efforts resulted in a matching grant of just under $2.2 million.

“We knew we were up against the wall last year, so we threw all our eggs into the harbor basket,” Christianson says of the lobbying effort. “We’re fortunate that ports and harbors was a priority for the state last year.”

The city’s portion of the project will be paid from funds the city put aside when the state relinquished ownership of harbors throughout Alaska and gave the new municipal owners money to offset maintenance costs.

Christianson says he was pleasantly surprised when the low bid for the harbor project came in about 10 to 15 percent under estimates. This allows the city to look at features that were dropped from earlier designs because of costs, he says. Hydaburg has a good reason to invest in access to marine resources.

“The harbors and maritime [resources] are the only [economic] thing that’s been constant,” Christianson says. “The other industries are bang and bust—timber and mining and other resource extractive industries. The marine one has seemed to remain constant. I think access to the marine environment is integral to the survival of our community.”

Work on Hydaburg Harbor is to commence after Pacific Pile finishes its work on the state ferry terminal in Wrangell. There, the company is to construct new mooring dolphins, fender panels, and a loading bridge, says Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities spokesman Jeremy Woodrow. The $2.5 million price tag includes some upland development, Woodrow says.

Wrangell is hoping to provide a home for other boats, says Harbormaster Greg Meissner. The city has two large transient docks with a combined 1,500 feet of side-tie dock, completed in 2010.

“We made it big like that so we can get the megayachts and the great big packers,” Meissner says. “In the summer, you can see the megayachts mingling with the seiners who work nearby fisheries. In the fall, larger packers come in and tie up for the winter.”

Wrangell is also offering upland storage, which is now storing about three hundred boats over the course of the year. The city is also buying a three-hundred-ton hoist, which can lift 660,000-pound boats to an on-land berth or repair yard.

“It’ll be the biggest thing in the region,” Meissner says of the new hoist. “We’ll be lifting 120-foot packers out of the water and even crabbers like you see on ‘The Deadliest Catch.’”

 

The City of Seward is planning multi-million dollar improvements for its Seward Marine Industrial Center across Resurrection Bay from the city proper.

Photo courtesy of the City of Seward

 

The Northernmost Ice Free Port

The Port of Seward is capitalizing on its ice-free status to attract large fishing boats and oil and gas industry vessels to the docks and upland storage of its Seward Marine Industrial Center (SMIC). The facility is located about six road miles from Seward and two miles from town across Resurrection Bay.

Among the site’s features is deep-water moorage (to negative twenty-five feet mean lower low water). SMIC also has a 250-ton Marine TraveLift, run by the City of Seward, and a 5,000-ton Synchrolift, privately run by Seward Ship’s Drydock. The Synchrolift can handle boats the size of the M/V Tustamena—a stout, oceangoing 296-foot long Alaska state ferry.

About $30 million in improvements to SMIC are planned to construct a wave barrier to protect the basin from wave intrusion and damage. Additional moorage to accommodate sea-based vessels, improvements to shore-based infrastructure, and repair of existing facilities will push the cost higher.

“Resurrection Bay is a great natural harbor, but at times, or in bad weather, we get a swell that comes in from the south and it causes the Seward Marine Industrial Center waterfront to not be a safe place to tie up your boat,” says Harbormaster Mack Funk. “What they are trying to do is get the basin enclosed and then add some docks.”

Spurring SMIC’s development is the interest of the Coastal Village Regional Fund, which operates a fleet of factory-trawlers and catcher-processors, in wintering in Seward instead of Seattle. SMIC is also attracting oil service vessels, like Shell’s Noble Discoverer, as a place to overwinter.

The presence of these large fishing and oil industry vessels are already encouraging Seward entrepreneurs to offer goods and services and for existing businesses to ramp up for the new customers.

“This is not just an opportunity for Seward, but for the whole region and the state to take advantage of this,” says Ron Long, Seward’s assistant city manager, a former tugboat operator and a longtime SWIC proponent. “If the fleet is moving up, [local firms will] have to either make the investments for technological and education improvements to meet demand, or the current providers that are doing business with the fleet in Puget Sound will establish themselves in Alaska.”

Long says that support vessels—such as net suppliers, and electronics supply and repair firms—already serve Bristol Bay and some remote and seasonal-only areas where there is not year-round support.

“I think there’s going to be some synergy across the fleets and the fishing industry and then beyond into other maritime trades,” Long says.

 

Home of the Golden Goose

Sand Point’s only harbor is Robert E. Galovin Small Boat Harbor and the main infrastructure there is thirty years old. The harbor, which has about 140 slips, is the mainstay of this fishing community of about one thousand on the Alaska Peninsula. Late this summer, the entire harbor is slated to be replaced.

“This summer’s rebuild has been in the works for about four years,” says Richard Kochuten Sr., who has been Sand Point’s harbormaster for more than ten years. “The city finally got financing for it this year.”

Kochuten says Sand Point received a $5 million state matching grant. The city sold bonds for $2 million, got $1 million from the Aleutians East Borough, and took $2 million out of its savings to make the required $5 million match.

In a March 2012 newsletter, City Administrator Paul Day wrote: “Both the city and borough receive their lion’s share of revenue from the very fisheries so dependent on safe and well-operated harbors. I would think that having the State of Alaska put up 50 percent of a $10 million project to improve our community and insure economic stability over the next twenty years is a no-brainer indeed.”

Kochuten says it can be difficult to get builders to consider working in Sand Point, which is “outside the beaten path.” So he says he was pleased to contract with Pacific Pile, which had also done work in King Cove and False Pass.

Kochuten says fishing is Sand Point’s economic mainstay and that Galovin Harbor is the center of economic activity.

“The guys go to work in January and come home in the fall,” he says. “It’s a fishing community from the word go. The majority of the fishermen live in Sand Point.”

Kochuten says marine traffic has been steady and that an upgraded facility will be greatly appreciated. “It’s a step in the right direction,” he says.

The new harbor will have slightly larger slips to accommodate today’s new, bigger boats. Sand Point has a 150-ton boat lift and upland boat storage area. There have been as many as eighty boats stored on shore at one time.

“The harbor is the goose that laid the golden egg,” Kochuten says. “The harbor runs the machinery that makes the city work.”

 

Arctic Port Study Recommends Nome-Port Clarence

 

In the 1860’s American whaling vessels would seek refuge at Port Clarence, a natural harbor near Teller on Alaska’s northwest coast. An important new federal-state study has chosen the area between Port Clarence and Nome as the likeliest site of a new deep-water port that would provide refuge and supply for the increasing number of American and foreign-flagged ships plying northern waters.

“Diminishing sea ice and expanded natural resource extraction are happening now,” states the Forward in the Alaska Deep-Draft Arctic Port System Study, which was released in March. “From drilling in the Chukchi Sea, dredging for gold in Nome, to ore and gas concentrate tankers coming over the top from Europe, Alaska is experiencing more and more traffic past its shores.”

 

Limited Infrastructure

The report notes that at present the U.S. Coast Guard response time is seven days by cutter from the nearest station in Kodiak to the northernmost portions of the state. There is also limited navigational infrastructure in northern waters and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other federal agencies could use a more northerly base.

To deal with this situation, a team of planners headed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities looked at fourteen sites on Alaska’s northern and western coasts—an area twice as long as the distance from the Canadian border to Florida on the U.S. East Coast.

“All of the sites are in need of enhanced marine infrastructure, so how do you choose?” says Lorraine Cordova of the Army Corps of Engineers, and the planning team leader. “The biggest piece was proximity to mission—proximity to the offshore oil endeavors and to mining. Nome and Port Clarence bubbled to the top.”

The team also looked at such issues as access to airports, groceries, and supplies, and the depth of the harbor. Port Clarence has deep water (up to negative thirty-five feet) which can accommodate larger ships. Nome has a medium-depth harbor, but is seeking $77 million to develop a deep-draft port. There is a seventy-two mile road between Teller and Nome.

 

Recommendations

The report’s recommendations include encouraging government funding and private sector investment and the conducting of a “feasibility analysis of Nome and Port Clarence using physical criteria and alignment with potential investors.”

“We have narrowed that down to three (specific) sites,” Cordova says. “This summer we will be sending people out into the field and we hope to have a draft report by the end of the calendar year.”

After that, she says, the report will begin gathering reviews from government agencies and public comment. “We want to have the finished report to the Secretary of the Army by 2014,” she says.

If all goes well, the request for funding could be sent to Congress in 2015. Then the project could start as early as 2017, “if the stars were all aligned.”

The report notes that the Bering Straits Native Corporation is in the process of seeking lands at the former U.S. Coast Guard Loran facility at Port Clarence and has been working with Crowley Maritime Corporation on a deep-water development plan. Bering Straits had been seeking the land as part of its allotment from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

The complete Alaska Deep Draft Arctic Port System Study is online at www.poa.usace.army.mil/Library/ReportsandStudies/AlaskaRegionalPortsStudy.

Alaskan author Will Swagel writes from Sitka.

This article originally appeared in the Alaska Business Monthly June 2013 print edition.

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