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Governor declares Disaster Emergency for Skagway in response to rockslides

Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy last Thursday announced a Disaster Emergency for Skagway after a recent visit by state officials. Skagway’s Mayor had previously declared a similar Disaster Emergency after rockslides caused a temporary shut down of its busiest cruise ship dock earlier this summer. A portion of the dock reopened, but estimates say nearly 125,000 cruise passengers had to skip the port. As KHNS’ Mike Swasey reports, the governor’s declaration could provide assistance that will help Skagway mitigate rockfall hazards and expand cruise ship berthing options to accommodate visitors in 2023.

Borough officials hope Dunleavy’s Declaration of Disaster Emergency for Skagway will free up federal funds in addition to state funds to help combat the barrage of rockslides that continue to impact the Railroad Dock, and limit the number of cruise passengers that can visit the port. Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata told KHNS that it’s the best news he could have hoped for.

“The Governor’s office has been fantastic through this, they sent an entire team here we spent an entire day with them taking them up in the rock side via helicopter. Some of us hiked up there. Then we had a roundtable with them all afternoon. And they were impressed about the severity of the situation. And they went back to the governor’s office and pled our case, and he declared an emergency,” said Cremata.

A geotechnical engineering firm is expected to complete a 10% design plan to mitigate the rockfall later this month. But with only half a year before Skagway’s next cruise season, it may not be possible to completely eliminate the rockfall hazard before ships return in 2023.

Skagway officials have been meeting with the owners of the Railroad Dock, White Pass and Yukon Route, to develop a plan to allow four ships a day to visit the town next season. That plan calls for an emergency improvement project on Skagway’s Ore Dock to be completed by next April. The plan would increase capacity to allow a large Post-Panamax or Quantum-sized ship to dock there. Those ships can carry up to 4,000 passengers and 1,500 crew.

Some of those larger ships had to cancel calls to Skagway this year as the only dock large enough for them in town is the Railroad Dock. But with its northern berth closed because of rockslide activity, any ships docking at the southern berth have to tender their passengers ashore. And as Cremata says, not all of those large ships have the capability.

“The Norwegian post-Panamax Class ships, they don’t have tenders. So if we don’t have a way to dock those post-Panamax ships on the Ore Dock, we’re not going to get them,” said Cremata.

He also says if the larger ships can dock on the Ore Dock, that will free up space on the Railroad Dock for two smaller ships south of the active rockslide area. Though they’ll still likely have to tender people ashore. The Broadway Dock can be used for a fourth ship.

Borough Manager Brad Ryan says the Ore Dock extension project should cost just under $6 million.

“A chunk of that is taking down the ore loader. Another chunk of it is demoing the existing wooden dock. And then there’s driving piles, electrical upgrades…” said Ryan.

He also says most of that cost is already accounted for in the municipality’s plan to reconfigure the Ore Dock as a multi-purpose dock in 2024. Engineering firm KPFF is expected to provide the next round of design plans for that project by December.

On October 4, Skagway voters will decide whether to approve up to $65 million in Revenue Bonds to pay for updated port infrastructure following the expiration of its 55-year lease with White Pass and Yukon Route. If approved, those funds could then be used for any project on Skagway’s waterfront. Cremata hopes that some of the Disaster Emergency funds could be used to pay the remaining costs of the emergency upgrades to the Ore Dock.

“If the revenue bond is approved by voters, three and a half million of those dollars can go into improvements on the Ore Dock for next season in advance of the project being done in ‘24 so that we can have four berths next summer. That’s very important. There’s an additional $1.5 million in estimated cost for that project. So I’m hopeful that maybe some of that relief money could go toward that,” said Cremata.

For now, borough officials say they have a verbal agreement with White Pass to move forward with the emergency plan to bring up to four ships a day to Skagway in 2023.