Borough discusses future of deteriorating barge ramp

As the downtown barge ramp nears the end of its useful life, the borough is weighing its options for replacing and possibly relocating this piece of critical infrastructure.

Assembly members and borough staff discussed replacing the ramp in its present location or moving it to 6-Mile or The Marine Service Center. Alternative locations for the ramp could free up the downtown area for tourism development but might also inconvenience the shipping companies that prefer to deliver their freight directly to downtown businesses.

The ramp’s life expectancy is “not long,” Borough Manager Jeff Good told the assembly at its Sept. 26 meeting. The most recent condition assessment was conducted around 2009 and estimated that the structure had about 10 to 15 years of useful life left.

“We’re there now,” said Capital Facilities Director Amber Al-Haddad.

The borough has performed maintenance on the structure since it was assessed, like spending around $250,000 to repair its floatation tanks in May 2022. But it has not yet formulated a plan to take care of the remaining structural issues.

“The problem with it is it’s under-designed for the amount of load we’re putting on there,” said Good. The metal ramp is old, and after years of withstanding heavier loads than it was intended to bear, its structure has been compromised.

Two years ago, an engineering firm estimated that building a new ramp at 6-Mile would cost about $18 million, according to Harbormaster Steve Miller. However, costs have gone up “exponentially since two years ago,” he added.

As the only municipal government in Southeast that owns its own barge ramp, the borough would need to pursue grant funding to replace and possibly relocate the ramp on its own. However, Miller hopes that the borough will be able to work with Alaska Marine Lines or Samson Tug and Barge to build a privately owned ramp.

Alaska Marine lines “owns its own place in Petersburg, Ketchikan, Juneau, everywhere,” Miller said. For the borough, the ramp is “a huge expense,” since it doesn’t charge companies high enough rates to keep up with maintenance.

“If we were to crank up rates to do proper maintenance, how much could the community really bear,” he asked. Products that arrive via barge are already expensive as is.

But before the borough can make any decisions about the scope of the project and partnerships with shipping companies, it needs to decide whether to relocate the ramp or keep it in the same spot — ideally within the next three or four months.

“We need to make a decision so that we can start applying for grant money for wherever that project is going to be,” Good said. “Otherwise, we can’t afford it.”

Alaska Marine Lines and Samson Tug and Barge both use the barge ramp to move freight, so both companies’ needs will factor into the borough’s decisions about where to locate the facility. “It would be an increase in cost to move out (to 6-Mile) for both of them on the operational side,” said Good, after factoring in the labor and operating costs for trucking freight into town.

However, moving the ramp from its current location “would allow us to do a lot downtown as far as the development of this property and would really be more attractive from a tourist standpoint,” he added.

Moving the ramp is an integral part of the borough’s waterfront master plan, which it developed in 2015 with Juneau-based Corvus Design. At that time, borough officials estimated that the plan would bring roughly $1.2 million to $2 million in additional economic activity to the community annually.

However, at the Sept. 26 meeting, Assembly Member David Powell questioned whether the potential boost to the economy from a more tourist-friendly downtown would offset the potential increase in freight costs that consumers could incur if the barge ramp was six miles away.

“We want this out of here,” he said of the downtown ramp. “But I’m not going to sit on the assembly and say, ‘hey, guess what? We’re going to move the barge out there and your freight in this town is going to go up another 30 cents a pound, or whatever it’s going to.”

The borough purchased the former sawmill property at 6-Mile for $2.5 million last year, intending to use the site as a catalyst for economic development.

The future of the barge ramp will be among the most significant issues that the assembly will consider in the coming year, said Mayor Patty Gilbert. “When we see our new assembly in October, be prepared because we’ve got some major decisions to make,” she said.

 

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