Five Alaska coastal communities set to share in $15M in harbor grants

Five Alaska coastal communities are set to share in $15 million in grants from the state to help replace and improve their small boat harbors.
Published: Jul. 7, 2022 at 7:30 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Five Alaska coastal communities are set to share in $15 million in grants from the state to help replace and improve their small boat harbors.

Jeremy Talbott, Valdez’s port director, said the $5 million grant will help the city replace its aging small boat harbor, which has a 200-boat waiting list. He explained that 53% of Valdez’s recreational boats are owned by Alaskans from the Interior who travel south to fish, and that an expansion is needed.

“There’s definitely a lot more boats than slips in the harbor,” Talbott said.

Three years ago, Valdez built a new dock for $80 million for larger ships. The old small boat harbor has had several electrical fires, Talbott said, meaning that building a new one should improve safety.

In Yakutat, a $3.7 million grant from the state will be used to help repair the city’s harbor, which was built in 1960. Jon Erickson, Yakutat City Manager Jon Erickson said it is showing its age with worn-out floats and aging concrete.

Last winter, Yakutat was hit by massive snowstorms that led to a state disaster declaration and the National Guard being flown in to help clear roofs. Erickson said Yakutat’s harbor is small and narrow and it’s not easy to clear off snow.

“I’ve had two and three people out there, clearing snow almost nearly every day,” he added, describing what happens when there is heavy snowfall. “It’s never ending.”

The state harbor grants pay 50% of the cost of construction, and local governments need to find the other 50% of funding from elsewhere. Valdez has the required matching funds in reserves, Talbott said, but Yakutat may need help from the federal government or there may need to be bonds approved by voters, Erickson explained.

The state matching grants are part of a program set up in 2006 by the Alaska Legislature to help fund harbor replacements and improvements after the cost of maintaining them was put onto municipalities. Mary Heidemann, Juneau’s field office planning chief with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said the grant program has been “really successful” in improving critical facilities in coastal Alaska.

“When we are out and about talking to communities, there’s a lot of interest in this harbor program,” she added.

But the harbor matching grants are also selective and chosen based on priority by the Alaska Association of Harbormasters & Port Administrators, meaning some coastal communities applying for help typically miss out each year. This year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed $3.5 million in grants as part of the state’s most recent budget, which saw projects in Sitka and at Ship Creek miss out.

“Every year, the budget is built on a combination of regional asks and available financial resources,” Shannon Mason, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said by email. “Due to a combination of project requests and available resources, this request could not be granted. However, there is no barrier to bringing this forward in an upcoming budget request.”

“In an ideal world, everybody that has match money would be funded on an annual basis, but that hasn’t been the case,” said Carl Uchytil, Juneau’s port director, after the city received $2 million to help finish renovation work on the Aurora Harbor.

He said improving small boat harbors is critical for commercial fishing, tourism and recreation, which are drivers for these communities’ economies, but that the state has fully funded the matching grant program just twice in the past 16 years. That inconsistency has been part of the reason the American Society for Civil Engineers recently gave Alaska’s ports and harbors a “D” grade on a national infrastructure report card.

The budget passed by the Alaska Legislature and signed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy includes over $300 million to repair the crumbling Port of Alaska and expand the Port of Nome. Uchytil, who wrote Alaska’s national ports and harbors report, said that the state’s infrastructure grade would “absolutely” improve when those repairs and expansions are realized.

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