The Harrigan Centennial Hall parking/staging plan divides the available areas into different uses, with the main loop — Area A — to be likely dedicated to the up to 15 shuttle motorcoaches that could be shuttling passengers at any given time next summer. (CBS image)

The Sitka Planning Commission got a first look at a plan to alleviate congestion at Harrigan Centennial Hall next summer, when between 400,000 and 500,000 cruise ship visitors are expected to call in town.

The objective is to segregate uses — and vehicles — in a way that is safe, and keeps people moving.

The high volume of passengers could mean as many as 15 large green Alaska Coach buses on the road at a time shuttling visitors between the Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal and Harrigan Centennial Hall, and they will have to shoulder in among the usual white and blue buses operated by Prewitt Enterprises, numerous smaller vans and buses operated by companies like Sitka Wildlife Tours and Tribal Tours, taxicabs, and the Sitka Community Ride, the city’s public bus system.

The two main options in the “Traffic & Staging Plan Summer 2022” would generally segregate vehicles by size, and commit much of the curb space in the so-called “Harrigan Loop” to the 65-passenger green shuttles. Option 1 would give all of the loop to the shuttles, and send tour buses into the Crescent Harbor Parking lot. Option 2 would have shuttles on one end of the loop, and tour buses on the other.

Clint Daniels has driven a bus for Sitka Tours for 24 years. He was uncomfortable with taking out parking spaces to accommodate tour buses in the Crescent Harbor lot.

And there was another problem.

“For us, the way the system has been working for the past three, four years where we park on one side (of the Harrigan Loop) and they’re (the green shuttles) on the other side — we’re able to set up tours,” said Daniels. “The other problem too is we have a dance show that occurs in this building. Where do we drop up passengers if you move us out and put shuttles there?”

Creating room for the large shuttles made sense to Bruce Conine, who operates Sitka Wildlife Tours out of four smaller vans. But he was concerned about potential conflict with the blue tour buses in the Crescent Parking lot. While he didn’t need much time to load his tours, he reminded the commission that he was “herding people,” and that people on vacation are not necessarily prompt. Problems could occur.

“For years, I’ve operated out of ‘A’ (the Harrigan Loop) and I have small vehicles,” said Conine. “And I understand the need for space for the big guys. I’m definitely willing to give up that space and not fight for it to have some dedicated space on ‘B’ (Crescent parking lot) where we don’t have to contend with large vehicles mixing into our small vehicle groups making it even tougher.”

Another part of the plan is to stage outfitters in the area immediately behind Harrigan Centennial Hall, above the boat launch. John Dunlap has operated his kayak outfitting business, Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures, out of a parked school bus in the Crescent Harbor parking lot for over twenty years. He wasn’t sure what the change in location would mean for his business, but he recognized that it was important to hash out a plan before summer.

“I’m not a bus guy,” said Dunlap, meaning his tours didn’t move via bus. “I just wanted to say I think conceptually, the work that that your group is doing here is very good. You’ve got your priorities right and in what you’re trying to do is achievable. And at the end of the day, not everybody not every user is going to be completely happy with what you come up with. But I encourage you to just keep going with this process because you’re going in the right direction.”

Read a memo from Planning director Amy Ainslie about the need to develop longer-term plans for addressing cruise tourism growth in Sitka.

Planning director Amy Ainslie reminded the commission that the parking and staging plan is short-term. First, Sitka has to weather the two-fold increase in passengers this coming summer, then begin to look at longer-term infrastructure development. She read into the record written testimony from Chris McGraw, the owner of the Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal. McGraw was already thinking beyond 2022.

“I would like to propose at CBS look to create a separate transportation hub for cruise ships shuttle and tour operations. The one that I feel could be developed Baranof School playground. This is a large space that could be reconfigured to include a transportation hub that could include space for both school bus and tourism-related vehicles. In addition, an upgraded playground for Baranof School could be part of the project.”

An alternative idea was suggested by Dennis McConnell, with Alaska Coaches. He proposed that the infrastructure was already in place to ease congestion at Harrigan Centennial Hall. Again, this is Planning director Ainslie reading written testimony from McConnell:

“There really is no reason for any tour operators to schedule their tours to depart from downtown. All tours should depart from the pier (at the cruise terminal). Having any tours depart from Centennial Hall creates multiple issues, which the tourism group is trying to solve. Guests taking a tour with operators who choose to place their equipment at Centennial Hall requires the guest occupy a seat on the shuttle, debark the shuttle motorcoach, then reload onto their bus that is staged Centennial Hall. This creates confusion for the guests, and increases the congestion of buses and people at Centennial Hall that could otherwise depart directly from the pier.”

Planning Commissioners didn’t pick a preferred option in this first look, although some expressed support for dedicating the Harrigan Loop to the green motorcoach shuttles — primarily for safety reasons. They asked Planning director Ainslie to incorporate a recommendation for a permitting and fee structure that could support the addition of three more employees at Harrigan Centennial Hall.

The goal is to have a final draft of the Traffic & Staging Plan Summer 2022 completed by December 15.