Tourists in line for the shuttle to the Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal at Harrigan Centennial Hall. (KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

The Sitka Planning Commission is recommending safety improvements as part of its plan for next year’s cruise season. They also want the city to once again consider the restroom situation. The Commission approved a draft of the plan at a meeting on Wednesday (12-7) and is sending it to the Assembly for review.

Next year the city will likely see another uptick in tourism, with more than half a million  visitors expected to cruise to Sitka.

In response, the planning commission is recommending the city stay the course with the main downtown thoroughfare, Lincoln Street, closing the road on days with 5000 or more cruise passengers. They’re also recommending safety improvements to Harbor Drive, like more pedestrian crossings and signage, and crossing guards. And they want alternate locations considered for the three temporary restrooms that were parked downtown all summer.

Read the draft plan here

In a survey conducted at the end of this summer, tour buses, traffic safety and congestion topped Sitkans’ lists of concerns. Most cruise passengers arrive in downtown Sitka via shuttle from the privately owned cruise terminal out Halibut Point Road. And terminal owner Chris McGraw wants to cut back on the congestion at the main drop off, Harrigan Centennial Hall, by adding another drop off point downtown. At a recent assembly meeting he said that Baranof Elementary School might work as a secondary location.

“I’m really not supportive of that particular facility being used, because that is a street that…people live on,” said Commissioner Katie Riley, who felt the commission should oppose the school as a potential drop off point in their plan.

“There’s a bunch of kids that play on that street, there’s the playground that’s used for kids, there’s Pacific High,” Riley said. “I think that we need to be supportive of maintaining the environment of Sitka as for residents, as for supporting our children and youth that are growing up in this community that are going to live here.” 

Riley agreed that dispersal of the passengers is a major issue, but she wanted other locations to be considered as alternate drop-off points. And Commission member Wendy Alderson agreed. 

“I think those diesel idling old buses that will be pulling through there and idling and it’s just, we’re already in no idle zone in the schools,” Alderson said. “So that just exacerbates that problem.”

“Disbursement is the biggest issue that in my opinion, we need to be open minded and focus on, because that’s become the biggest problem that we’ve seen, just this summer alone is the disbursement issue,” said Commission Chair Chris Spivey, pushing back. “I’m not gonna lean one way or the other. But I think we need to remain open minded…especially during the extremely busy portions of the summer.” 

Unable to reach a consensus, the commission didn’t amend their plan to oppose a drop off at Baranof Elementary School. But Planning Director Amy Ainslie said that if the cruise terminal pursued the school further, there would be a more involved public process. 

“The Planning Commission in its land management responsibility would be reviewing a potential lease,” Ainslie said. “With it being, again, in theory being tied to tourism, [it] would be extra pertinent to make sure that it goes through this commission, and then [is] discussed at the assembly as well.”

Ainslie said if a private location was identified, the city’s involvement would be less, but the police chief would still have to approve any new bus stops on local streets. The planning commission approved its draft plan for 2023 with few changes. The Sitka Assembly must vote on the plan before any change could take effect.