Ketchikan’s City Council is scheduled Thursday to finalize a plan to allow shuttle buses to bring cruise passengers to the city’s downtown core from Ward Cove. City officials recommend staging the buses on a block surrounding the U.S. Forest Service’s downtown visitor center.
City officials forecast more than a quarter-million passengers will arrive at the private two-berth Mill at Ward Cove cruise ship dock this summer. Ward Cove Group representatives estimate about half of them will get on shuttle buses to go downtown.
At the beginning of last summer, Ward Cove shuttle buses were staged along the Front Street Extension next to the city’s port. But as Ketchikan Public Works Director Mark Hilson told the City Council earlier this month, that presented some problems.
“Congestion — we didn’t quite have enough staging capacity. So in 2021, we had maybe 8% of the tourists as compared to 2019, and that area was just too small, so we had bottlenecks developing and some conflicts between the uses out there,” Hilson said at the council’s Feb. 3 meeting.
So the city moved the staging area to Berth II, and Hilson says that worked well. But that was last year — port calls were less frequent and ships were less full with pandemic restrictions in place.
But this year, the city estimates ships will be about 70% full. That means nearly a million cruise ship tourists are expected to visit Ketchikan, including the roughly 265,000 forecast to arrive at the private Ward Cove berths. Hilson told the council that staging the buses on the port would likely interfere with passenger loading and unloading along the city berths.
So the city is looking for a new place for Ward Cove shuttle buses to gather. After evaluating four options, city staff settled on a block surrounding the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center as their recommended staging area.
But some dock vendors and independent tour operators are asking the city to instead split the Ward Cove buses between Berth II and the Discovery Center. In a memo, city officials say dock vendors told them that dropping passengers on the port would bring tourists closer to the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau visitors center and boost dock vendors’ business. At the City Council’s last meeting, Martha Thomas of Alaska Discount Tours said it seemed the city was prioritizing big business over local operators.
“What we feel that’s happening is we’re getting pushed aside,” she told the council earlier this month.
But the Ward Cove owners and bus operators didn’t like that idea. That’s , according to Hilson’s memo to the council. He cited Holland America-Princess and Ward Cove Group representatives as saying it could confuse passengers and lead to further congestion.
“While I would like to be able to recommend the City Council accept the proposed compromise, I am very hesitant to risk setting up such an important operation that may not be fully functional and as a result, negatively impacts the guest experience in the City. As it stands,we will need to be prepared to address unforeseeable issues that may occur with the shuttle operation and having it in one location will simplify the operation,” Hilson wrote.
The Discovery Center staging area would come with significant costs — Hilson estimates that replacing lost street parking spaces with a temporary lot, plus a new crosswalk for pedestrian safety would cost upwards of $130,000. A memo from Ketchikan’s acting city manager says the city plans to negotiate an agreement with Ward Cove Dock Group that would outline fees for the operator. That would be subject to council approval at a later date.
Ketchikan’s City Council is scheduled to consider the bus staging plan at a meeting that begins at 7 p.m. Thursday at City Hall. Members of the public have a chance to weigh in at the beginning of the meeting. The full agenda is available online, and the meeting is live-streamed both on local cable channels and the city’s website.