Sitka’s main downtown thoroughfare, Lincoln Street, was closed on busy cruise days for the first time in 2022. (KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

Traffic issues were at the top of Sitkans’ lists, when the Sitka Assembly and the local Planning Commission met on Thursday (10-27-22) to review survey results following the biggest cruise year the community has ever seen.

The two-and-a-half hour meeting covered a lot of ground – the assembly heard reports from city staff and stakeholders in the tourism industry – but as KCAW’s Katherine Rose reports, a significant update came from the owner of Sitka’s private cruise terminal, who expects another 100,000 visitors next summer.

Fall is in full swing in Sitka, and Lincoln Street has been quiet for a little over a month, giving city staff and the community a moment to catch their breath before thinking about what worked, and what didn’t, in the biggest cruise year Sitka has ever seen. There’s no question Sitka saw a record-breaking cruise season in 2022, though it didn’t end up being quite as big as predicted. 383,000 cruise passengers visited Sitka over the summer, compared to the 480,000 Sitka anticipated at the beginning of the summer. But still, the summer looked quite different from previous years– and that came with benefits and drawbacks.

City planning director Amy Ainslie said they’re still awaiting sales tax returns for the final part of the season but in the spring and early summer, Sitka took in around $6.2 million in sales tax revenue, almost $2 million more than the same period in 2019.

“For April through June we’re looking at really significant increase,” Ainslie said. “Even over 2021, we’re looking at about 1.5 million [more] dollars.”

View Ainslie’s presentation of community survey results here

And 2023 and beyond are set to be even bigger. Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal owner Chris McGraw said 510,000 passengers are expected to disembark at his dock next summer, which is nearing the terminal’s maximum capacity.

“My opinion is growth will flatten out primarily because dock space is becoming limited,” McGraw said. “And unless Sitka builds another dock, you’re not going to see a significant number of ships because the large ships do not [tender].”

But more cruise passengers in town will require more accommodations. This summer, that included temporary bathrooms and more trash service, and closing Sitka’s main thoroughfare to vehicles 74 days.

One of the biggest issues city staff reported from the community survey was traffic. Of the 600 Sitkans surveyed, many were concerned about pedestrian safety and congestion. While most respondents supported the closure of Lincoln Street, around 100 respondents noted traffic problems at the Lake and Lincoln St. intersection [DOT may be redoing the intersection next year.] Many noted jaywalking across Harbor Drive as a concern. Harrigan Centennial Hall, on Harbor Drive, is the main pick up and drop off point for cruise passengers, but crosswalks in the area are limited.

McGraw said he shared concerns around congestion, and recommended a solution: Use the Baranof Elementary School as the drop off point for the cruise shuttles. He said Principal Jill Lecrone contacted him with the idea, and had come up with a plan. 

“I think it’s something that’s worth looking at. And it’s, you know, relatively close to this facility,” McGraw said. “[A] downtown loop shuttle could be part of it. But ultimately, what I see going forward is needing to spread things out a little bit. Because I think the comments that everybody’s hearing, the negative comments, are congestion. And having all of those activities from this one spot…that congestion is not going to get better.” 

McGraw said that it required four buses traveling downtown on a seven minute schedule carrying sixty people each– that’s around 67 round trips a day to move 4,000 cruise passengers. The Baranof Elementary plan would shorten travel time somewhat, and put fewer buses running the route.  

“Why do you think is the city’s responsibility to fix the problem, your problem with the congestion?” assembly member Thor Christianson asked McGraw.

“I don’t. If the city wants to sell me half of the Baranof playground, I’ll buy it,” McGraw responded. “Or if there’s another piece of property that I could buy for shuttle operations, I would buy it. I’d be happy to have a private shuttle drop-off downtown. So I’m not looking for the city to fix my problems,” McGraw continued. “I think it’s in the best interest of everybody to have a efficient shuttle operation where people don’t have to wait, traffic impact is minimized, and that’s my goal going forward.”

In addition to congestion, Planning Director Amy Ainslie said survey respondents also cited emissions and pollution as a problem when it came to the buses. 

“It may be worth having your newly created sustainability commission look into electric buses or alternatives that may be less disruptive and incentives for that,” Ainslie said to the assembly. “In terms of getting at quality-of-life issues – not to say we can solve it entirely, again, since it’s not our operation — would be looking at the bus aspect.”

Rebecca Himschoot asked McGraw if he’d consider shifting his fleet to electric. 

“Electric bus technology is coming along, I still don’t know if it’s there. You know, 45-foot motorcoaches, about $1 million bucks currently,” McGraw said. “I think one of the solutions is if we can find an alternate location that will improve that round trip time from the dock to downtown.” 

McGraw also said distribution of the tourists will ease traffic. He’s partnered with Shee Atiká Inc. to open a tourist attraction near the terminal on 17 acres of land leased from the city. It’s expected to take some of the pressure off downtown next summer. Nevertheless, it’s likely more work remains to be done to determine whether Sitka has reached its capacity, regardless of how widely visitors are dispersed.