More ships bring traffic, business to tiny Whittier

Posted: Sunday, September 12, 2004

WHITTIER Whittier is quickly gaining fans, with more visitors, more business and more traffic for the tiny Prince William Sound community.

Cruise lines included Whittier in their itineraries this year for the first time since 1993, bringing about 90,000 passengers to the relatively isolated hamlet.

This is in addition to near-record vehicular traffic traveling through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel this summer, as more boaters, kayakers and day cruisers made their way through the 2.5-mile-long passage. The combined road-rail tunnel, which opened in 2000, is the only land access in and out of the town of 178 people.

And more traffic is expected. Whittier officials are in discussions with a cruise company to begin service to local docks at least twice a month starting next summer. Also, the town might be replacing Seward as a destination for a fast ferry stop from the Alaska Marine Highway System.

This swarm of mostly summer travelers is prompting a few changes in Whittier's infrastructure and in the tunnel schedule, which already is seeing some bottlenecking.

By the end of summer, Whittier will have hosted 44 visits from Princess and Carnival cruise lines. A ship docks every Saturday and Monday, and on alternate Wednesdays. Ship capacity is from 1,950 to 2,124 passengers.

In addition to a new cruise ship destination, Whittier is popular for its daylong glacier tours, recreational boating and hiking opportunities.

Located about 60 miles southeast of Anchorage, the town was accessible only by train or boat for years.

The Alaska Railroad Corp. began offering a shuttle service between Portage and Whittier in the mid-1960s, allowing vehicles to drive onto flat cars to be transported through the original tunnel. About 20,000 vehicles a year went through the tunnel on the train.

This July alone, nearly 11,500 vehicles traveled through, just short of the record number of 11,700 in July 2000, shortly after the tunnel opened to car traffic. Since the opening, nearly 878,000 vehicles have driven through.

The tunnel is open from 5:30 a.m. to 11:15 p.m. Generally, a half-hour is allotted for travel in each direction. Traffic flows smoothly on most days, but occasionally especially on evenings when ships are in vehicles back up on the Whittier end, said Gordon Burton, facility manager with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Both cruise companies use buses to transport passengers between the Anchorage airport and Whittier. Princess uses trains, as well.

One Carnival cruise can fill up 40 buses. The buses go out, drop off passengers, then return for another load. Add that to the recreational vehicles, cars full of people coming off glacier tours and trucks pulling boats, and you've got some serious logjams. Next year could bring additional train trips as Princess reportedly plans to add a Whittier-to- Denali tour as part of a cruise package.

''If we didn't have the trains coming in and out, too, we could squeeze in another 10 minutes here or there,'' Burton said. ''It hasn't been real crucial so far. Sometimes to service other users, we'll drop five buses and have them stay behind until the next opening. Next summer, we'll adjust the schedule to accommodate the cruise ship companies and other users.''

Meanwhile, Whittier is making plans of its own to accommodate the added traffic. City manager Rick Hohnbaum is adding funding for a full-time emergency staff member, sidewalks and more public rest-rooms to the city budget.

Whittier's annual budget is about $2.5 million. The town imposes a 3 percent sales tax for six months of the year, from April to September.

Whittier doesn't receive any direct funds from the tunnel toll, but revenues from the industry will help pay for the new additions. Hohnbaum said the city expects to see an additional $200,000 this year in sales and property tax revenues.

When ships are in, restaurants and bars are full, and the bed and breakfast establishments, and charter businesses are booked. Some new commerce has developed in Whittier, including a new hotel, espresso stand, a couple of charter boats and a boat rental business. The boom has created about 25 new jobs in town, mostly as baggage handlers at the cruise ship terminal.

Whittier also is facing another challenge since the state relinquished its harbor rights to the city. The degraded harbor will need to be repaired, or the city risks a higher potential for liabilities, Hohnbaum said.

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