Sitka may finally get a new seaplane base that has been in the works on and off for the last two decades. During a meeting at Harrigan Centennial Hall Wednesday, December 11, representatives from the city, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the DOWL consulting group updated the public on planning process.
DOWL, the engineering firm contracted by the city to work on the project, is conducting an environmental impact study.
The city accepted an $842,629 federal grant in August to pay for an environmental review. If that process is successful, the city will be able to move ahead with land acquisition, and eventually, construction.
The new base is expected to cost around $16 million and the FAA will cover 93.75% of that. The city would have to put up $1 million in matching funds. The FAA would also provide ongoing funds for maintenance and future development.
Kelli Cropper is the city project manager overseeing the effort. She says the current base, off Katlian Street, has outlived its useful lifespan and has a number of shortcomings, starting with limited docking capacity.
“It has eight spaces,” Cropper said. “Four of them, on the land side, you can’t access at low tide. So they go dry.”
Additionally, the current facility has no on-site fueling infrastructure, is expensive to maintain, and requires pilots to navigate a channel already busy with ship traffic.
The proposal calls for a new base on the northeast side of Japonski Island, across from Thomsen Harbor. It would have 14 permanent slips and space for five transient planes, according to designs presented at the meeting. It would also have on-site fuel storage, a drive down ramp, and more car parking, among other potential features.
About thirty people attended the meeting. Many expressed support for the new base but also frustration at how long the process is taking — the city began scouting potential locations in 2000.
One of those people was pilot Kevin Mulligan, who runs the floatplane company Baranautica along with his wife, Karen. Kevin emphasized the potential region-wide impact of improved seaplane infrastructure, including better support for the NSRAA and Armstrong hatcheries.
“It is such an important thing that not only Sitka needs, and the fishermen need to support NSRAA, and Armstrong-Keta, and NOAA research at Little Port Walter, and all the small communities that don’t have an airport,” he said.
Despite the eagerness to see the base finally come to fruition, Cropper notes several important steps remain beyond the environmental impact review. Steps that will each take time.
“We’d have to bid the work, and know how much that costs, in order to get the construction grants,” she said. “So figure, allow two years just for timing the grant cycle.”
She says the goal is to have the new base operational by 2024.