SNOW LINE REFLECTION

The snow line has been coming down the mountains around Skagway, but as of Nov. 7 had not made it to town, or even below Lower Dewey Lake. A few stumps were lightly dusted last Sunday before the line moved back up the hillside, reflected in the still lake.

Photo by Jeff Brady

Another record leap for WP&YR

By JEFF BRADY
Despite a number of operational challenges, the White Pass and Yukon Route in 2007 hauled 30,000 more passengers than in 2006, setting another seasonal record.
WP&YR President Gary C. Danielson said this week that the railroad’s final passenger tally was 461,388, compared with the previous records of 431,249 in 2006 and just over 430,000 in 2005.
“2007 was a very good year in numbers of passengers, 461,388,” Danielson said. “However, we could have carried several thousand more if not for early season confusion on legislation.”
Some cruise ships did not sell excursions on board until a clarification of a new voter-passed law on vendor disclosure cleared the Alaska Legislature during the first week of the season.
“We also had several challenges due to the wash-out at Mile 41.7 and flooding in the Southern Lakes district.,” he added.
About halfway into the season, the new Carcross service was suspended, but all of the booked Holland America passengers were “bused around” and able to take the railroad into Bennett, he noted. It did lose an unknown number of independent travelers who may have taken the Carcross train, he added.
The record snow-pack last winter was a huge challenge for the Maintenance Of Way crews, but they “did a wonderful job in opening the line up on time,” Danielson added. “We had heavy locomotive maintenance at the beginning of the year which also presented many challenges. We also had the loss of the Empress of the North early in the season due to her accident , which resulted in the loss of revenues.”
The company was able to settle contracts with its two unions (see sidebar). It also made upgrades to the Broadway and Ore docks, he added.
While damaged diesel Engine 114 was being rebuilt in Washington (see photo caption), steam Engine 73 was used as a yard worker, in addition to weekend steam service. No. 73 will go in for early season maintenance next spring, and steam Engine 69, which was in the rail shops most of last summer, will do steam duty at the start of the 2008 season.
Danielson said the railroad will likely see lower numbers in 2008 with the expected loss of 24 port calls by ships.
“(Skagway) will start out with 48,000 less cruise ship passengers right off the bat,” he said.
Royal Caribbean ships are not calling on Alaska in early May, and some shifting in Holland America ship classes between Alaska ports means fewer overall numbers on their ships calling here.
The Carcross rail program will continue to be the prime mover of Holland America passengers between Skagway and Whitehorse.
Although the lake levels in the Yukon have finally dropped, work on the water-damaged railbed along Bennett Lake will not take place until spring, Danielson said, when they can address possible frost heaves from the ground being moist. That work should be done by the end of May when the Carcross service begins. Repairs to the water-damaged sections of the old Carcross depot, which had to be abandoned at the end of the season, are being made by the Yukon Government to get it back open for the visitor center and gift shop.
“In spite of all the challenges, Carcross had a successful first year of operation and we are looking forward to expanding our services at Bennett,” he said. “We still have upgrades to do in our service, but, for our first year, I am pleased overall.”
Danielson said the company is working on creating more charter and incentive type business for the Bennett operation, such as a new combination of rail-tour programs.

ENGINE 114 RETURNS – A crane unloads rebuilt Engine 114 from an Alaska Marine Lines barge on Oct. 29. A special temporary track was installed on the Railroad Dock for the transfer, which occurred without a hitch. Engine 114 was sent out a year ago after sustaining heavy damage in a Sept. 3, 2006 work train derailment near Bennett that killed operator Bruce Harder of Carcross, and injured three others. The railroad has not yet received a confidential draft accident report from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said WP&YR President Gary Danielson. After taking inter-agency comments on the report, the TSB can make revisions before it releases a final report to the public. On the TSB website, the most recent final report is from an Aug. 2005 accident, so the final report on the WP&YR incident could take another year. Engine 114 was rebuilt by Coast Engine and Equipment Co. (CEECO) in Tacoma, Wash. Danielson said all costs are not in, and the company hopes to have the majority covered by insurance. “Suffice it to say, it is a new engine,” he said, and will return to service as a work train engine. – Jeff Brady

Teamsters approve rail contract

The approximately 55 Skagway rail workers with Teamsters Local 959 have voted to ratify a new agreement with the White Pass & Yukon Route.
The union had been working under an old agreement that expired on Jan. 1, 2006, and had staged informational pickets over the summer. After a final round of meetings with the federal mediation board this fall, the company presented a new proposal to the union, which was ratified by the membership in voting on Oct. 26.
WP&YR President Gary Danielson said he received and signed the agreement on Nov. 1. The new contract runs through 2009.
“Details of the contract are between the company and the members of IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters)," Danielson said. "I am very pleased it passed with a two-to-one margin, and this now gives our employees and the company certainty for the next few years on wages and benefits.”
Tim Sunday, Southeast Alaska business agent for Local 959, said Tuesday that the signed copy was not in hand yet, and he could not comment on the details.
In mid-summer, the railroad also signed a new agreement with members of the United Transportation Union through 2010. – JB

Juneau Access estimate jumps to $374 million
JUNEAU – In the nearly two years since the release of the final EIS for the Juneau Access project, the project cost estimate for the preferred road-ferry alternative has increased from $258 million to $374 million.
The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities released the 2007 Annual Financial Plan Update for the project on Oct. 29. The update “mirrors the national trend that construction for all aspects of transportation: airports, ferries and roads, has skyrocketed in the last few years,” said a DOT press release.
“In Alaska, earthwork has increased by as much as 55 percent and the asphalt mix used on roads has increased 85 percent since 2004, the release said. “The cost of steel used to build bridges and ferries has gone up nationally 100 percent during that same time period.”
The actual cost is estimated at $350 million in 2007 dollars, and adjusted up for 4 percent annual inflation to the year of construction for each stage.
The Juneau Access selected action consists of a 50.8 mile extension of Glacier Highway from Echo Cove to just north of the Katzehin River and includes construction of a ferry terminal and shuttle ferries that will operate between Haines, Katzehin and Skagway.
“The cost increase does not affect the overall economics of the project” DOT&PF Southeast Regional Director Malcolm Menzies stated “since the costs of all transportation modes including construction and operations have increased in this same period. For instance, the cost of a new mainline ferry, estimated at $120 million in the 2004 Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, is now estimated at $250 million.”
Menzies is hoping for final permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the end of the year, so first phase road work can start in 2008. Those permits have been on hold since the Federal Highways Administration issued a Record of Decision in favor of the project in April 2006. DOT has been responding to various mitigation concerns. For example, there are more bridges in updated designs to improve wildlife passage.
Haines and Skagway local governments are still on record in favor of ferry improvements over the road alternative which was pushed by the previous Frank Murkowski administration.
New Gov. Sarah Palin has supported the road alternative as well, but said she will listen more to what the affected communities say. However, her office last week issued a statement urging people to contact their lawmakers and support the project:
“The governor feels this road is a key part of the Department of Transportation’s long-term plans for transportation throughout Southeast Alaska. It is also a huge and complex engineering project. As we wait to see if the Army Corps of Engineers can get the project permitted, the governor is encouraging local communities to send a message to the Legislature to fund this project.”
The road project has also been facing legal challenges from several environmental groups which have addressed not only the costs, but avalanche risks and potential effects on wildlife.
“At a time of limited state and federal resources for transportation, it would be a huge mistake for Governor Palin to proceed with the Juneau Road/Ferry Project since there currently is a ferry alternative. This costly project will benefit very few people statewide, and project money could be better spent on meeting higher-priority transportation needs,” stated Lois Epstein, Director of the Alaska Transportation Priority Project, a non-profit, statewide transportation watchdog organization.
From the other side, in an interview with the Juneau Empire, Dick Knapp of the Juneau-based group Citizens Pro Road said the new cost estimate is not surprising.
“The more the road gets delayed, the more it’s going to cost,” he said, adding that most who oppose the road are afraid of change. “I respect the point of view that is based simply on not wanting change, but to put forth arguments that the road is dangerous, or it would destroy the ferry system, or there is no money available, is just plain wrong.”
The 2007 Financial Plan update is available on the project web site: http://dot.alaska.gov/juneauaccess/ It details various funding scenarios and timelines for project completion, which could be 10 years away.

BOROUGH: Where to park?Assembly rejects appeal

Finding a place to park can be frustrating at times, even in a small town like Skagway. Housing is another key issue, especially during the summer months when the population swells to accommodate seasonal employees. Complicating both issues, entities seeking to build new residential properties are required at least one parking space for each dwelling unit, according to municipal code.
These issues came to the forefront last week when Hernandez Associates, based in Anchorage, sought to overturn a decision by the Planning and Zoning Commission to deny their application for an off-site parking variance. The variance would have allowed Hernandez Associates to maintain parking for a proposed upstairs residential space at Sixth and Broadway on a different property owned by the company on Second Ave.
The initial response by P&Z at its Sept. 13 meeting had been unanimous to deny the variance, as well as another which would have eliminated the requirement for a five-foot setback of the building. Hernandez Associates initially was hopeful the downstairs of the property could be used for retail while the upstairs was used for residential housing. The company is planning another Alaska Fur Gallery store on the site.
Hernandez Associates only appealed the denial of the parking variance and brought it before the Board of Adjustment (Appeals), which is comprised of Skagway Borough Assembly members, at their Nov. 1 meeting.
In its application, Hernandez claimed the 25x50 foot lot was too small to provide the required two parking spaces, and an unnecessary hardship was created by requiring excess parking spaces due to the fact there was plenty of parking available on their Second Ave property.
Manuel Hernandez explained to the appeals board via teleconference from Anchorage that only one of the eight available spaces behind the One Hour Photo location on Second Ave was being utilized. He said it would be no problem for persons living at the residential property on Sixth to commute, and added, “It is not uncommon for people to walk in Skagway.”
Dave Vogel, representing P&Z, said exemptions granted in the past were a “noble failure,” and the commission felt making an exception in this case was unwarranted. He suggested the assembly visit the idea of off-site parking to see if it should become a part of municipal code.
In response to the arguments Assemblywoman Colette Hisman said, “We need to stick by our code and stand by the decision of P&Z.”
Others on the Board of Appeals agreed, and the decision to uphold the P&Z ruling was passed unanimously.
After the decision, Virginia Long, a member of the Historic District Commission, said she agreed with how the assembly upheld the current code, but said the downtown parking issue needs a thorough review.
“There have been some instances where others did not build a second story for apartments because of the code....,” she said, adding “There are many who have parking who do not use it for parking. They use the street and have other things (garbage cans, dog houses, flowers, fuel tank) where the parking is allowed.”
Audience member Mavis Henricksen suggested the assembly approach the issue the same way it dealt with requiring sprinklers in the district, by providing business owners a way to participate. If applied to parking, then the borough could provide the lot, and if the property owner does not already provide off-street parking, then he/she would have to rent space in the lot, she suggested.
Assemblymember Mike Korsmo said it was a good idea for the borough to look into providing off-site parking somewhere in the historic district and suggested looking for areas to develop for such a purpose.
Mayor Tom Cochran said he would bring up ideas to Planning and Zoning, and Assemblymember Mark Schaefer said his Public Safety Committee could work on the issue. Borough Clerk Marj Harris said parking lot options could be incorporated in the upcoming re-write of the Skagway Comprehensive Plan. – AC

SCHOOL: Count higher than expected

The unofficial pupil count for Skagway School at the end of October was 105.9 students, reported Superintendent Dr. Michael Dickens at the Oct. 30 board meeting.
The count is higher than the 100 projected at budget time last spring, which, if it holds after a review by the state, could put Skagway back into a higher funding formula bracket.
A couple new or returning families helped the district count, as well as some seasonal students staying longer into the fall, he said.
“It’s still a surprise,” he said, noting that the school did not apply for a waiver this year to have the count moved to September.
If the 105.9 holds and the district gets extra money from the state, it may be a one-year reprieve. With a large graduating class of 14 in 2008, and a small kindergarten class coming in, the number is likely to drop to 100 or lower next fall. – JB

PHOTO OF THE WEEK

IT’S A MATCH – This little dinosaur turns over two skeletons during the match game at the Little Dippers Halloween Carnival at the Skagway Rec. Center on Oct. 27. Photo by Jeff Brady

• SCHOOL ACTIVITIES: Volleyball team poised for region title run; Soccer Shoot results; Intramural finals.

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