Project Manager Chad Gubala spoke optimistically to the assembly on the current status of the project and what can still be done. Currently, 60 percent of the design documents are complete, and permitting with the Army Corps of Engineers continues.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the US Environmental Protection Agency have given the okay on the dredging and capping of the material, as well as the water treatment methods.
Through the course of permitting, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Marine Fisheries Service have discovered issues that the project would cause for marine life.
“There is an increasing sensitivity to endangered species and marine mammals because of climate and ocean changes that are occurring,” Gubala said.
During the project’s construction, NOAA and NMFS have said that building pilings would create an 11 or 12-mile sonic zone where there is an intake of marine mammals.
Usually it takes nine months for NOAA and NMFS to review such a project, but Gubala said he could get it down to three.
“Given that we are considering a mitigation problem, which will fix a problem that harms mammals, they have agreed to expedite the process. We would be through it in three months,” he said. “It’s still on the table if something magical happens with White Pass.”
White Pass and Yukon Route President John Finlayson voiced his intent to work together in a letter to the municipality earlier this month, saying they are “interested in cooperating and being of assistance.”
Borough Manager Scott Hahn traveled to Las Vegas, Nev. last week to meet with Finlayson and discuss the future of the project.
Hahn was advised not to make any comment until addressing the mayor and assembly, which occurred after this paper went to print.
“If we get some kind of permitted response from White Pass, we have the option to put the spurs down and conduct the project if need be,” Gubala said. “That window is very rapidly closing.”
Gubala gave the assembly a decision tree, complete with a few different options for members to consider. One option replaced the loader and fuel platform, while another focused on the floating dock. But nothing can be done until site control is gained and the contamination is removed.
“While we can play defense, we can’t really make any improvements in the main basin area,” he said. “We are at a bit of a stalemate in regard to port development at this time.”
The permits produced for the harbor are good for five years, with a possible five-year extension depending on whether levels of contamination in the harbor change.
“We are coming close to a very challenging point in time here. The more you know what you want to do, the better,” Gubala said.
Assemblyman Tim Cochran said the municipality is still lacking input from stakeholders, noting that the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority will not remove their ship loader until they have a new lease or the current one ends in 2023.
“These operations don’t cease or don’t have long gaps or interruptions in commerce,” Cochran said.
Assemblyman Spencer Morgan echoed Cochran, saying that the stakeholders’ issues need to be addressed.
“If we could move that input into the future of moving forward with Gateway, that is valuable to me because I don’t want to handcuff myself because we did something wrong,” he said. “We have a user down there that is working and says this may be a problem… we should address those things.”
Gubala said while AIDEA is a part of the project, White Pass is the main focus. AIDEA is the sublessee of White Pass who owns the dock.
“Your issue with negotiating a long term negotiation with AIDEA is a longer discussion than what we have time for,” he said.
In a letter to the Corps earlier this month, AIDEA said that they would not replace their current ship loader, which is necessary to continue on with remediation of the basin. Director of Project Development and Asset Management Jim Hemsath said the current project did not outline the installation of a new loader before the demolition of the current one.
Gubala said a portable interim loader had been established, enabling AIDEA to operate until 2022 and keep its contract with Capstone. But Gubala said AIDEA was not agreeable to it.
“Give the assembly and AIDEA time to breathe until they figure out the future of their relationship,” he said.
Conversation shifted to the future of a floating dock, which will be necessary if Skagway is to accommodate breakaway class cruise ships arriving in 2018.
During a Nov. 18 Port Commission meeting, commissioner Steve Hites said he had spoken with Norwegian Cruise Line Vice President of Destination and Strategic Development Colin Murphy about the future of Skagway’s port.
After explaining the result of the Tidelands lease vote and the port’s current situation, Hites said Murphy expressed interest in partnering with the municipality to build a floating dock.
“That blew the doors off because I hadn’t even considered the possibility,” Hites said. “We have gotten a breeze from a brand new direction that I think we should pursue.”
NCL is currently in a similar deal with the Port of Seattle. In August they signed a 15-year lease to continue operating out of Bell Street Cruise Terminal’s Pier 66. Together they will split an estimated $30 million in facility upgrades to create a terminal capable of handling the larger ships.
The renovations include expanding space for processing cruise ship passengers from 44,262 square feet to 151,471 square feet, adding two new passenger-boarding gangways and an automated conveyor system for moving luggage.
According to The Seattle Times, the Port’s property tax levy will pay $15 million toward the project, and NCL will cover the rest.
The Port’s website reports that 2015 saw 192 vessel calls and 898,032 passengers, with each call bringing an estimated $2.5 million generated for the local economy. Skagway expected 402 calls from 30 different vessels and a total of 792,095 passengers in 2015, only 105,937 fewer than Seattle.
An August article from The Seattle Times said NCL will pay the Port an estimated $73 million over the 15-year term and will have the option to extend the lease through 2035.
In contrast, the failed 35-year Tidelands lease between White Pass and the municipality would bring in a quarter of a million dollars to the municipality each year. It would increase $25,000 every five years and rise to $400,000 per year in the final five, totaling $11.375 million over the 35-year term. The municipality would also incur revenue from subleases on the waterfront.
Commissioner John Tronrud said it would make sense for NCL to want to expand Skagway’s port, as they often have to deal with trains unloading and people waiting around on the docks.
“If they could get a priority berthing, I can understand how this would be valuable to them,” he said.
NCL could not be reached for comment.
But regardless of who is interested or what ideas arrive, until the municipality can gain site control and the basin is rid of all contaminants, nothing can be done to the harbor and the Gateway Project comes to a halt.
Port Commission Chair Tim Bourcy passed around a list of ideas on Gateway for the commission to look over and add on to, with the hopes of passing it along to the assembly for consideration.
“At the end of the day, we have to just keep trying to push the ball forward,” Bourcy said.