Cruise ship staging area will be ready for first arrivals

Photo/Becky Bohrer/AP

JUNEAU — The staging area at the city cruise ship docks downtown is near the end of a major overhaul and should be ready by the time the first ship reaches the docks in a few weeks.

This year’s first ship will arrive May 5, according to city schedules. The first ship of the summer arrives May 1 to the private docks.

The $3 million cruise ship terminal staging area project will reconfigure parking, sidewalks and crosswalks on South Franklin near the two city-owned cruise ship docks to improve maneuverability for tour buses and safety for tourists. Construction on the project began last fall, a week after the last cruise ship left town.

There is currently a pull-through system for bus pickup of cruise ship passengers. The new parking lot configuration will allow buses to nose into the lot diagonally, CBJ port engineer Erich Schaal said. A secondary lot for smaller tour vehicles will allow for pull-through pickup.

The main lot, which will be able to hold 12 of the full-size buses, will butt up against a walkway where cruise ship passengers can hang out before loading onto the vehicles. This is industry standard these days, Schaal said, and keeps passengers out of the parking lot, improving the safety of the operation.

“We’re trying to get pedestrians into safe facilities,” he said.

The whole area will have a “landscape design to move people into safe places without putting up fences,” Schaal said. “We want our facility to be inviting and naturally guide people where they should go.”

Two-thirds of cruise ship passengers go through the staging area being worked on, according to Schaal.

The improvements are aimed to streamline the cruise ship unloading process and keep visitors safe. A few close calls over the years — and one incident several years ago when a tourist was hit by a car on South Franklin after stepping off the sidewalk — prompted a reconfiguration of the area.

“We don’t want people in the parking lots or crossing South Franklin,” Schaal said.

But, with changes to the staging area came concerns from Juneau’s tourism industry about equitability, Schaal said, and with the new parking configuration smaller tour companies worried they would get edged out of the area all together. Dock and Harbors worked closesly with local businesses — through Juneau’s Tourism Best Management Practices group — to find a compromise.

“We’ve had many, many meetings about this,” he said. “There’s an understanding.”

But it took some work to come to that understanding.

Kirby Day, director of shore operations for Princess Cruises and organizer of Tourism Best Management Practices, acted as a go-between for the approximately 60 local companies in talks with Docks and Harbors on the project.

The amount of available space, with the staging area essentially squeezed between the mountain and the ocean, was limiting when it came to quieting worries of tourism companies, Day said.

“We have a very finite amount of space, so we don’t have the amount of space where you can do something perfect that makes every individual operator and user happy,” he said. “So we all kind of got together and decided well, if everybody’s just a little bit unhappy, we’ve accomplished the goal.”

Independent tour companies — ones that aren’t owned by a cruise company — were the most nervous, he said. But the changes to parking will bring the space up to industry standard and improve the flow of traffic downtown “like at the AJ dock and Princess dock.”

The angled parking will allow buses to leave once they are filled.

Before, full buses would be stuck in between ones that were still being filled with passengers. The new parking configuration is a more efficient use of available space.

Day said the process was good and “I think we came up with a pretty good plan.”

“The harbor department was good about listening to our suggestions and going back and forth and tweaking the project in a matter that made sense for all users,” he said.

Tourism Best Management Practices is a 17-year-old local organization with about 85 member companies, including cruise lines that stop in Juneau. It recently has expanded to include retailers and restaurants downtown.

To use the new staging area, a company must be a TBMP member.

“Really, we cover nearly 100 percent of the companies that move a volume of people,” Day said.

In addition to improving the safety of the area, the changes at the staging area are meant to make way for even bigger construction coming down the pipeline.

Construction on two new $54 million cruise ship berths, capable of accommodating today’s larger, 1,000-foot vessels, will begin in fall 2015. Presently, the two city-owned cruise ship berths cannot accommodate ships larger than 965 feet and 780 feet in length.

“We want to have a port that serves the industry needs, and the needs of the industry are for larger berths,” said CBJ port director Carl Uchytil in a previous Empire report. “The existing facilities are woefully inadequate for the vessels we see coming into Juneau now.”

The private AJ and Princess docks can already accommodate larger vessels, Day said.

The staging area project will complete work that has been going on at the site for several years. A city-owned visitor center was built at the site two years ago and the seawalk was connected to create a continuous path along the water.

The entirety of the construction, including the $3 million staging project being completed now and the new cruise ship berths, will cost about $70 million.

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly approved the plan in 2010. The project is fully funded by the state cruise ship passenger tax and CBJ port development fees. No city sales or property taxes were needed.

With bigger ships that can hold more passengers parking at city docks in the coming years, CBJ is looking ahead to streamline the area, Day said. In 2013, about 1 million cruise ship passengers visited Juneau, according to a report from the Juneau Economic Development Council. The report predicted 967,000 passsengers this summer, slightly less than last year. But that number might grow once bigger ships can tie up at all of Juneau’s docks.

Even though it’s a good idea to make these changes ahead of the coming influx of passengers, Day said, he anticipates a few growing pains when it comes to the tour companies that must use the space.

“Everybody’s a little uncomfortable with change, we realize that,” Day said of the TBMP member companies. “We know it’s knew, but let’s all agree to not get overly excited about it. Let’s share the space to the best of our ability.”

Looking at the area now, with much of the construction to take place in the final weeks of the project, it’s hard to tell how everything will go, he said.

“Right now you look at it and you’re like, ‘Hmm,’” Day said. “We’ll look at it as we get really close to completion. We’ll ride it through for the first few weeks and if things aren’t working exactly right, we’ll come together as a group and see if we can do a little tweaking.”

Schall said the city wants to continue working with businesses to make sure the new configuration works as well as it can with everyone.

“The last thing we want is on May 1, May 2, May 3, a huge bottleneck issue,” Schaal said. “We really want this to go smoothly. It’s in the best interest of everybody.”

04/16/2014 - 12:17pm