Moving people and moving mountains were both on the agenda at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Sitka Assembly. The Assembly passed, on final reading, a critical areas ordinance that allows property owners to waive geotechnical requirements in known landslide zones. They also gave the city permission to pilot a downtown shuttle for the summer tourist season. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

The Sitka Assembly has given interim city administrator Phillip Messina his first homework assignment: to work with local agencies to pilot a downtown shuttle for tourists. 

Sitka has seen a rise in cruise ship traffic and with it, a rise in tourists in the downtown area. Local merchants are worried that visitors aren’t taking note of all there is to see and shop for.

Pat Kehoe, member of the Island Artist Gallery, wants a people mover that begins at Harrigan Centennial Hall and completes a fifteen minute loop through downtown, stopping at five key places and occasionally at Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi. Kehoe shared her hopes for the project with the Assembly Tuesday night (06-27-18).

See full proposal here: Proposal CPET shuttle

“That would improve the visitor experience. It would help people who have difficulties with ambulation to be able to see downtown and decide if they want to stop and shop somewhere, hopefully improve revenues, and improve tax revenues,” Kehoe said.

Thirty business owners have expressed their verbal support of the idea, some offering to contribute funding. In marshaling grassroots support, Kehoe wanted to move quickly. She said a 14-passenger van had been donated for a 30-day trail run. It would cost $7000 to operate.

Assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz said he found the proposal lacking in detail. “It’s a rough draft here. I’m in 100% support as a downtown merchant in having a people-mover shuttle. I believe it’s a necessity this town has been lacking for some time. However I want to see a process go out,” he said. “I want to see a professional organization step up. I want to see someone who has everything in line to do this.

One party that’s already shown interest in piloting a shuttle is Halibut Point Marine Services. In April, when the company was seeking money to run more buses from the Old Sitka Dock, General Manager Chris McGraw ventured this very same idea. The city did not issue an RFP at that time. Tuesday night, the Assembly determined it was too late in the season to carry out that process.

So, what’s possible this summer ? Many on the Assembly wanted to keep the project at the grassroots level, with city support. “I guess my intent with this is to engage in conversation with our government-to-government partner and also to work with the community to see if we can’t get this pilot project off the ground,” said Assembly member Tristan Guevin.

Folding all these details together, the Assembly directed interim city administrator Phillip Messina to develop a supplemental budget ordinance – not to exceed $10,000 – to pilot a downtown shuttle this summer. In doing so, he’s been encouraged to reach out to the downtown business group as well as Sitka Tribe of Alaska, who operates the public transit service the Ride.  

In other business, the Sitka Assembly:

-Rejected a proposal to drop insurance coverage for the city’s hydroelectric dams and tunnels. Utility Director Bryan Bertacchi presented four options to save the city money by modifying the insurance policy. “Depending on the appetite for risk a savings of nearly $300,000 is attainable,” Bertacchi wrote in the proposal for Option 1. The Assembly ended up choosing Option 3, which is to raise the machinery breakdown deductible to $500,000. This change saves the city approximately $50,000 annually.

-Passed a new critical areas ordinance by a vote of 6-0 that will drive development in areas with known landslide risk.  Less than two years have passed since the devastating landslide on Kramer Avenue in 2015, which claimed the lives of three Sitka men. Since then, the City has supported city-wide mapping. This ordinance adds a chapter to Sitka General Code for “Landslide Area Management.” Ord 2017-14 says that property owners can waive geotechnical and mitigation requirements before building in a known “moderate” or “high” risk zone for landslides. That person would sign a covenant with the city that would be tied to the deed of the land, assuming the risks of development. Subdivisions and high occupancy buildings would not qualify for this waiver option. Future homeowners could cancel that covenant at any time.

-Took public comment on how to disburse $38,000 from the city’s fish box tax. They decided to give $28,000 to the Sitka Sound Science Center for its hatchery program and $10,000 to the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association for multiple programs to bolster the fleet and provide opportunities to young fishermen and deckhands.

-Submitted a list of “shovel ready” priorities to the state for state funding. In order of priority, they are: 1) Developing an alternative potable water supply, 2) Maintaining and upgrading essential electrical infrastructure, especially the Marine Street Substation, Green Lake Power Plant, and the Thimbleberry Transmission Line, and 3) replacing floats at Crescent Harbor and making electrical upgrades to Crescent Harbor.