A motion to direct City of Ketchikan Manager Karl Amylon to inform the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities of the City of Ketchikan’s strong opposition to the postponement of a road construction project from 2021 to 2022 was unanimously approved by the Ketchikan City Council during its regular meeting Thursday. The proposed project includes resurfacing and other improvements to Tongass Avenue between the Hoadley Creek bridge, near Carlanna Lake Road and the Tongass Avenue viaduct, near Elliot Street. Elliot Street is a stairway street leading up to Water Street from the uphill side of Tongass Avenue, across from the water side area between the Westflight Building and the former ProMech Air terminal.

Acting Port and Harbors Director and Public Works Director Mark Hilson wrote in a memo attached to the meeting agenda that the state department has been working on the design phase of the Tongass Avenue Improvements Project since 2018. At the regular City Council meeting of Jan. 2, 2020, an ADOT&PF representative outlined the design rationale for the project and told Council members that construction was planned to start in 2021.

In a memo written by Amylon, also attached to the Council’s agenda, he described the negative effects that the construction would have if undertaken during the 2022 cruise season.

“After what will likely be a two-year absence of cruise ships visiting Ketchikan, a major disruption of Tongass Highway will result in negative impacts to Ketchikan in its first year of economic recovery following the pandemic,” Amylon wrote.

He added, that an additional negative outcome would be that traffic would be disrupted between downtown and the new Ward Cove cruise ship facility. The community’s first opportunity to bus cruise ship passengers from that facility to downtown will likely occur in the 2022 cruise season, and road construction during that time could create daunting problems.

Hilson wrote that traffic in and out of Berth 4 also likely would be disrupted with road construction during the cruise season, as would flow to businesses along the corridor.

City of Ketchikan Mayor Bob Sivertsen said during the meeting that “the problem with Ketchikan is we have one main thoroughfare,” and that a road construction project in the middle of a busy cruise ship season, which 2022 is hoped to be, “raises chaos.”

DOT Regional Preconstruction Engineer Kirk Miller joined the meeting from Juneau telephonically.

“We completely agree with you,” Miller said. “We don’t think it’s the best option.” He said that although his department had “desperately” been trying to get the project ready for 2021, “it was an unfortunate comedy of errors that led us to a delay.” The main reason for the delay has been obtaining a right-of-way needed for the construction, Miller said, in addition to departmental complexity.

“It takes time and our processes are so complicated that we just ate more time than we wanted to,” he said.

He added that he’d like DOT and city representatives to get together to talk about solutions, but Sivertsen countered that many such talks had taken place before with no results, which was “frustrating.”

Council Member Riley Gass called the delay “outrageous.” He added that the state highway that goes through Ketchikan is the “lifeline” of the community. He added that community members feel that DOT “views us as second class,” and that “we deserve better than that.”

Miller said that DOT would do what it could to get the project done, but noted that “We spend more money in Ketchikan than in a lot of other places.”

Council Member Judy Zenge called the postponement of the road work a “dereliction of duty,” urging city staff members to “go after them very diligently” to make sure promises were upheld.

Council Member Dave Kiffer called the situation “frustrating,” but pointed out it was the first time a DOT representative had admitted fault, so that was at least one positive aspect.

Council Member Janalee Gage said that in the eight years she’s held a council seat, she and other council members have asked the ADOT for assistance with creating safer pedestrian walkways and street crossings to no avail.

She told Miller that the excuse that the ADOT just “didn’t have time” was not acceptable.

“I’m not only disappointed,” she said. “I’m actually angry. I’m disgusted.”

Council Member Mark Flora agreed with Sivertsen that communicating with in the past had been fruitless. When Council members did tell the ADOT representatives what was needed for safer, more suitable streets, the suggestions were ignored.

“Take some time to listen,” he told Miller, adding, “let’s get some clean pavement.”

Flora also referred to a second 2022 road project that Miller had mentioned as in the works, highway improvements from the U.S. Coast Guard base to the City of Saxman.

“If you’re doing two road projects in 2022, we’re going to have another season destroyed and it’s not going to be from the pandemic,” Flora said.

Miller answered a question from Council Member Abby Bradberry about whether the road work could at least be done in the off-hours from ship schedules, saying that certainly that would be an excellent approach. The construction also could be started early in the spring, before ships started arriving.

 “I think we can work this out,” Miller said.

Also on Thursday, the City Council approved funding agreements to local agencies through the Community and Humanitarian Services Grant Programs.

Council Member Bradberry proposed an amendment to one of the motions, to move money from the SE Senior Services - Care Coordination Program and SE Senior Services - Food and Fuel Program to the Women in Safe Homes program in order to fully fund the latter to the extent of that agency’s $17,560 request.

The Community Grant Committee, in its Feb. 2 meeting, had recommended WISH for a $16,624 grant, which was $936 short of their request. Bradberry suggested, in her amendment, that $536 be taken from the Care Coordination Program’s $46,500 allotment and $400 from the Food and Fuel Services $23,730 allotment for a total of $936 to be added to the WISH allotment.

Bradberry explained that she thought that WISH had been more active during the pandemic than the SE Senior Services program, so that fully funding an organization that “truly worked and helped the community” made sense.

Sivertsen and Kiffer explained that they were opposed to the amendment, Sivertsen said of the organizations that “we understand that they all do good.”

Kiffer and Bradberry both said they were part of the Community Grant Committee this year, and Kiffer said he thought the process used by the committee “worked just fine.”

The amendment failed for lack of support, in a 4 - 2 vote. Council Member Zenge abstained, as several of the agencies under consideration for grants rent space in The Plaza Mall, which she manages.

The two main motions, one to approve $268,750 in grants for a dozen nonprofits, as well as asecond to approve a $71,000 grant for First City Homeless Services and a $60,000 grant for Ketchikan Homeless Shelter-PATH, were unanimously approved.  

There also were two discussions at the end of the meeting, one about how to plan for Ketchikan’s port management and navigating communications with cruise lines and other Southeast Alaska port communities, and another about the status of local COVID-19 infection and vaccination rates.

Curing the first discussion, Bradberry advocated for more contact with individual cruise lines, rather than simply cruise line agencies such as Cruise Lines International Association Alaska.

Sivertsen mentioned that it’s important — during 2021 especially — that city representatives keep in contact with the cruise lines that run smaller ships. Those ships are small enough that the problems related to COVID-19 mitigation that are keeping large ships from visiting won’t prevent the small ships from visiting Southeast Alaska.

Acting Port and Harbors Director and Public Works Director Mark Hilson told council members that he had been talking with representatives from the Uncruise, Victory and American cruise lines, and will be in contact with Lindblad soon.

Hilson said that he’s been “letting them know we’re open for business and just seeing where they’re at.”

Bradberry said she felt the most important conversations to have with the cruise line companies are “What’s going to happen? How are we going to expand together? What are our needs we need help with?” and “What do cruise lines need from us?”

She also urged a long view in planning — 10 years or more.

Ketchikan City Manager Karl Amylon said that he has been talking with leaders in Skagway, as that community is considering structuring passenger fees similar to those the council has been working on.

In Thursday’s meeting’s final discussion, Ketchikan Emergency Operations Center Incident Commander Abner Hoage gave an overview of the local situation with the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said that the expiration of the Alaska state emergency order won’t have much effect on the local ability to continue to respond appropriately to the pandemic.

The 14-day infection rate as of Thursday was 2.77%, he said. He also shared the EOC’s deduction that the more-recent outbreaks of the virus likely have been due to people refusing to properly quarantine after notification that they were in close contact with an infected person. He urged people to both test and quarantine.

All tests at the airport are now free to anyone, he said, and the drive-up testing at Berth 3 also is free and now offered to anyone who wants a test.

The local distribution of vaccines is “going well,” Hoage said.

Places he listed as vaccination sites included Island Pharmacy, Safeway and Walmart — all of which have websites where people can sign up for appointments. He said many local clinics, Gateway Public Health Center and PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center also are giving vaccinations.

He said that in March, there should be about 1,000 doses available to the public for that month. As of about a week before his presentation, Hoage said 66% of people aged 65 and older had been vaccinated in Alaska.  

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough website also now has vaccination information included there, Hoage said.

In answer to a question from Council Member Gass, Hoage said that as the number of vaccinated people in Ketchikan rises, the EOC will adjust risk level determinations accordingly. He said they are now working on a model that will enable them to calculate that.