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Banana Point to host Rainforest Island Ferry - for now


Petersburg Assembly members voted, with a few caveats, to express their support to the state for a new ferry service to land in the borough.

Despite earlier alternatives offered, the North End Ferry Authority (NEFA) had circled back to Banana Point, submitting a letter requesting the borough’s support of the location to get the project on track to begin carrying passengers in May of 2015. The letter, signed by NEFA Manager Kent Miller, included copies of its land use permits applications to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the primary agency which controls the site.

But the docking, contested by many users of the recreational site, will only be temporary, to be re-examined by DNR officials and NEFA’s board after a year, eventually to switch over to using another site, Miller added. “The intent we have expressed is that we will be able to develop funding for the adaptation of South Mitkof terminal if that becomes the preferred alternative or, after a certain interim, ferry use will shift over there — that’s our basic intent.”

“The only letter the Assembly sent out was to ask you to steer away from Banana Point, if you could,” Mayor Mark Jensen pointed out, recalling previous objections from recreational users of the launch who were concerned that allowing the ferry to dock at the site could crowd out recreational users or significantly damage the concrete launch ramp through direct contact or propeller scouring.

“We certainly encouraged that — the approval being postponed until objections were dealt with,” Miller agreed, stating that NEFA had “responded in good faith, and even exhaustively, to the citizen concerns to the Assembly’s requests, we didn’t find we had any alternative.”

According to a letter submitted to the Assembly, the other proposed locations had proved ultimately unsuitable for a variety of reasons. Blaquiere Point was “too shallow for the vessel, and is subject to winter icing,” while Olson’s Log Transfer Facility, endorsed by the U.S. Forest Service, was rejected based on its continued usage for timber products. Woodpecker Cove was seriously considered as well, but “its access is seasonal only, via a nine mile one lane gravel road” would have increased ferry and passenger travel time, “making it difficult for the ferry to make a round trip … within a 12-hour day.”

The existing South Mitkof terminal earned the longest look, and “a conceptual plan for its adaptation to berth the vessel was drafted,” but also scrapped on account of the expenses — about $525,000 for modifications to the terminal to receive a 70-foot vessel, rather than its intended 200-foot ferry, and about $75,000 to fit the front-loading ferry to dock at the terminal — which lead the NEFA to simply state it “cannot finance this.”

“I still have reservations in the success of doing it out there, but, again, I think you’ve tried your best to accommodate everybody and hope for your success,” Assembly Member John Havrilek said.

Miller added that NEFA had approached the Alaska Department of Transportation about possibly splitting the cost of modifying the terminal between the agencies, about $260,000 by ADOT and the slightly larger portion by NEFA, but the idea had not met with approval. “DOT instead proposed to offer their support for our interim use of the Banana Point launch ramp. We told them that there was local opposition and we wanted to honor that.”

Addressing another major concern expressed by residents, Miller also stated that NEFA had obtained an engineering opinion from Michael Lukshin of ADOT’s division of harbors that the landing craft’s use of Banana Point would not significantly damage the ramp.

“His statement is, in a nutshell, ‘in our opinion, NEFA’s proposed use of the launch ramp should have relatively minor impact on the structural integrity of the facility and that excessive wear or damage will not be incurred under normal use conditions, and if diligent care and attention is taken by vessel operators,” he said.

The cement ramp being significantly higher on the Mohs scale, Miller added that the ferry’s loading ramp would be padded by extra-dense polymer skids to prevent it and the landing area from damage during docking.

“About 10 percent of the total displacement of the boat will come to bear on the ramp in two hulls, it’s a catamaran craft,” Miller said, citing engineering specs that estimate the ferry to be operating between weights of 50-90 tons. “That’s less than the typical wheel load of a highway vehicle. In the case of the backwash scouring a hole at the other side of the ramp, I understand that has occurred at other sites in this area.”

NEFA engineers had looked at the depth for the launching ramp and area water turbulence and did not anticipate any major damage from scouring, he said. “The opportunity for a scour with the energy used to keep the boat in place is negligible or nonexistent.”

Additionally, NEFA would be liable for damages to the ramp during its use, he said, mentioning a $50,000 cash escrow and insurance policy that would be in place to cover repairs to the site. The facility is appraised by the State Engineer’s Office at about $250,000.

Assembly Member Kurt Wohlhueter asked Miller who would be “diligently overseeing that, so, if damages occurred, we’re compensated” — and if the borough is required to pick up the additional burden of monitoring the site, who will pay for the staff hours?

“It’s not like anybody’s going to go out there and watch you make the landings,” Wohlhueter said. “Is this going to be something that we’ll be able to detect over time, if maybe there’s a caught timber or one thing or another we can attribute to your guys’ backwash, can we go to you and repair it or is this something we’re going to have to go to court with and have a rock fight with lawyers?”

Jensen and Public Works Director Karl Hagerman speculated that the site would likely police itself, with frequent users passing word of any damages to Hagerman in fairly short order. Yet should borough staff have to put in additional hours on the site in relation to the ferry’s usage, be it inspections or cleaning, Miller said NEFA would, depending on circumstance, likely reimburse the borough.

“We have said, if any work is required, we’re going to pay for it,” Miller said. “You can be sure you’re going to get a prompt response, and we’re not proposing there be an investigation and determination of fault before our response kicks in — we’re going to take the responsibility. If there is damage during our tenancy, we’re going to fix it.”

Miller added that using the site as a ferry landing point also fell within its intended purpose, according to stipulations that had gone into construction of the Ernie Haugen Public Use area — 935 acres of protected use lands from a 1988 state statute that, “we noted in that law it says, ‘subject to a finding of public need by the Department of Natural Resources, development of transportation facilities, including roads, expansion of existing boat launching ramp, related parking, highway and ferry terminals, is consistent with the purposes of AS 41.23.050-080.”

Later projects and grants also had not ruled out the possibility of the site taking on additional uses for transportation, he added. “It is obvious, from the intent of the funding, that neither transportation nor recreational use is intended to monopolize this facility.”

According to NEFA’s application to DNR, “this will be a year-around passenger/vehicle ferry service with connecting highway transit, initially operating four days a week, between Coffman Cove on Prince of Wales Island, Wrangell, and Petersburg.”

The ferry to make the runs, the M/V Silver Eagle, a 65-foot landing craft, would be renamed “Rainforest Islander” and will carry 28 passengers, seven vehicles and cargo, stopping twice each day at Banana Point. Those not taking vehicles to the craft will be “shuttled on/off the ferry by an 11-passenger van, which also will transport passengers to/from Petersburg,” according to the application.

Initial usage numbers are estimated at 5,200 passengers and 1,600 vehicles, expected to rise to 6,200 passengers and 1,900 vehicles by 2018. It will not stop for fuel in Petersburg, but may load and purchase supplies from businesses in the borough.

Additionally, NEFA’s land use application proposed limited site development for parking and ferry loading operations.


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