It’s time for Juneau to make plans for 1.31 million visitors in 2019 and beyond, a massive 20 percent growth from 2017.
The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor’s Center (MGVC) has been proactively undergoing a major planning effort which includes how to better accommodate its 512,190 visitors. One option includes a circulator bus or train that would take visitors from a new parking lot the last mile to the MGVC. The circulator would limit the noise and air pollution at the MGVC and improve the overall visitor and local experience.
The congestion problem is on South Franklin Street too, so why not work together toward one solution that solves congestion on both ends? What steps is the City and Borough of Juneau taking to accommodate those visitors on sidewalks, streets and what are the projected impact of those pedestrians, vehicles and vessels downtown? A major planning effort should not only include transportation but the overall downtown experience for visitors and residents alike. Modernize mass transit to accommodate a 20 percent increase in passengers, improve air quality, and decrease greenhouse gases. All four cruise ship docks and the lightering craft dock are accessed via South Franklin. In addition to coaches and buses serving the docks, Thane residents, local businesses and Alaska Marine Lines use South Franklin to access the rock dump area. Department of Transportation’s limited 2017 traffic data shows, Aug. 1, a typical five-ship Tuesday with an estimated 16,917 passengers and crew, 7,566 counted vehicles on South Franklin. A 20 percent rise in 2019 over 2017 could generate 9,079 vehicles daily on South Franklin and potential delays.
There are approximately five dozen of the 20-plus-year-old vintage motor coaches, plus dozens of other old retrofitted school buses that ply South Franklin on their way out to the valley. They emit particulate matter, soot and nitrogen oxide that pose severe cardiovascular health risks. Not only would modern mass transit improve our local air quality, but it would be a step in the right direction to the Paris Climate Accords that the Assembly approved. Funded by head taxes, a light rail or similar coming from downtown could run straight to the MGVC and other popular tourist destinations like Auke Bay. Spur lines could serve valley commuters year-round. Like the Alaska Railroad, cruise lines like Holland America or Princess could sponsor light rail cars specifically for their guests, a potential public-private partnership. A 20 percent increase in pedestrians will further put the squeeze on traffic.
Is South Franklin safe for more pedestrians? The narrowest sidewalks on South Franklin are under five feet wide. These pinch points and other photo stops like the bear chair cause people jams that often cause the pedestrians to step into the street often without looking for traffic. Commercial drivers are used to this jaywalking, but it is a dangerous situation at best and will only get more difficult. Should the curbsides on South Franklin be cordoned like Marine Park so people are chained off from dangerously stepping into traffic? Plug in more ships to improve the air quality. The air quality downtown can be noxious if the winds are blowing smoke from the cruise ships stacks toward town. Shore power should be extended to the two new CBJ docks and cruise lines should be required to plug in. Electrical substations could be paid with head tax fees or similar. CBJ and AEL&P could incentivize the private AJ dock to do the same. Most Princess ships plug into surplus shore power at the private Franklin dock and completely shut off their engines while docked eliminating emissions. Now is the time to plan for the wave of increased visitors that is upon us.
The irony is not lost that so many tourists come from around the world at the cost of an incredible carbon footprint to see our shrinking Mendenhall Glacier. The city should complement MGVC’s efforts with sustainable reforms downtown. In the June 5 Juneau Empire, CBJ’s Port Director Carl Uchytil said in regard to visitor increases, “Hopefully it will just be business as usual.” Hoping is not enough. Alaska is marketed for its wildlife, pristine wilderness, and clean air and water. As the capital city, we should be showcasing that standard in town too with clean, efficient and more sustainable tourism.
• Michael Hekkers lives in Juneau.