WHITTIER (AP) -- The road project through the Whittier tunnel began with big ambitions. But so far, visitor numbers haven't boomed.
Whittier locals blame the tunnel tolls, but state officials say tunnel operations already cost more than twice as much as the tolls bring in.
At $15 per round trip for passenger cars and $40 for motor homes, it's more than most people want to spend, said Matt Rowley, Whittier city manager.
''The results have been disastrous,'' he said.
After hearing complaints about the tolls for more than a year, the state has devised a plan to drop rates for some motor homes. The smallest motor homes would cost $15, but most would cost $25. Those longer than 23 feet and pulling trailers would still cost $40.
The state is also proposing more ticket books and a quarterly pass, which would cost $450 for passenger vehicles. A book of 30 tickets would cost $300, $10 per trip.
State officials held public meetings in Whittier and Anchorage last month to discuss the proposed changes. Residents from both areas said fees need to drop further to lure more visitors.
The new plan stems from complaints and from observations by toll workers, said Murph O'Brien, a project manager with the state Department of Transportation. Last year, toll workers counted about 750 motor homes that turned around when drivers learned the toll charge.
About 100,000 people visited Whittier annually by train before the road opened in June 2000. At that time, state officials predicted the new road would bring 485,000 to 650,000 visitors annually.
The first year, when the tunnel was free, about 103,000 vehicles made the round trip through the tunnel.
But that dropped to about 67,000 in the year from April 2001 through March 2002. Including 19,000 who took the train, the state figured the flow of visitors was just slightly more than before the road opened.
O'Brien said the state is willing to lower the tolls but only to a point. The state wants to draw in more visitors, but also needs to cover maintenance costs for the $80 million tunnel. The tunnel costs about $3.6 million to operate annually. Of that, he said, about $1.5 million comes from tolls.
O'Brien said the state would investigate cost-cutting measures, but he wasn't hopeful. The combined road-rail tunnel is expensive to run, he said, because it is 2 1/2 miles long and must safely accommodate vehicles, one direction at a time, and trains.
On the web: www.dot.state.ak.us/creg/whittiertunnel/index.htm.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.