Harbor general investigation study officially launched

Study will be conducted over next three years, involve community input

The general investigation feasibility study into the Homer harbor expansion is officially a go.

On Wednesday, March 29, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District Commander Colonel Damon Delarosa signed into effect a feasibility cost-share agreement with the City of Homer, according to an April 3 news release from the city’s administration.

The agreement officially launches the study, which will be conducted by the Corps over the next three years “in close partnership with the City of Homer to examine expanding the Homer Harbor,” the release further states.

“This is a huge accomplishment for the Homer community and the whole USACE team, as only a handful of General Investigation new starts are authorized each year,” Delarosa said at the cost-share agreement signing, according to the release. “We look forward to this collaborative effort with the City of Homer as the non-federal sponsor.”

The study is anticipated to kick off in May, according to the release. The Corps team will be managed by USACE Civil Works Program’s Curtis Lee, who will provide expertise in civil engineering, planning, programming, project management, economics and budgeting. City staff, working with HDR Inc., will assist with the study, the release states.

A long time in the making

During their regular meeting on March 28, the Homer City Council passed without any objections Resolution 23-026 “in support of entering into” the study for the Homer port expansion and authorized the city manager to negotiate and execute the appropriate documents. According to a March 28 agenda item report, the resolution was created in preparation of the signing of the agreement, which was reviewed by JDOLaw, the city’s law firm located in Anchorage.

The expansion project, long sought after by stakeholders and harbor users and recently re-elevated as a controversially hot topic among Homer community members, has been the No. 1 or No. 2 item on the city’s Capital Improvement Program since 2016, though it was first listed in the CIP even earlier.

Homer first partnered with the State of Alaska Department of Transportation and the Corps on a feasibility study in 2007, but it was put on hold at that time because “preliminary results indicated the project’s benefit-to-cost ratio would be non-competitive for federal funding,” according to the project description listed in the 2023 CIP. Feasibility was reexamined in 2019, at which time the study returned with a “positive” cost-to-benefit ratio. According to the agenda item report, this justified to the Corps that “a further, more in-depth general investigation study was prudent for this viable project.”

The cost for the investigation is budgeted at $3 million, with $1.5 million provided by federal funds and the City of Homer and State of Alaska matching those funds with local shares of $750,000 each. Homer set aside its share of local matching funds in 2020, according to the news release. The Corps received authorization and funding from Congress for their portion of the project at the beginning of 2023, according to the agenda item report.

The City of Homer also acknowledged U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski for her support of federal funding for the general investigation study, as well as Alaska state legislators who helped secure State matching funds in the FY23 Capital budget, the release states.

Scope of study

According to the resolution, the study “will provide all the economic, environmental, geophysical and engineering analysis necessary to develop a final cost-to-benefit ratio on a preferred design … and is the initial step to justification of federal dollars for the construction portion” of the project. A basic outline, described in the agenda item report, of a general scope of work conducted in general investigation studies was provided by the Corps and is as follows:

1. Specify problems and opportunities associated with the federal objective and specific state and local concerns;

2. Inventory, forecast and analyze existing and future conditions relevant to the identified problems and opportunities;

3. Geophysical site testing;

4. Assesses environmental impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969;

5. Formulate alternative plans to address the problems and capitalize on the opportunities;

6. Evaluate the economic, environmental and other effects of each alternative plan to produce a benefit-cost analysis;

7. Compare the alternative plans and their effects;

8. Select a recommended plan;

9. Chief of Engineers issues Chief’s report with recommendation on the project; and

10. USACE submits the completed Chief’s reports to the congressional authorizing committees.

The agenda item report further states that any or all of the above may apply to the study that will be conducted in Homer, but “a detailed timeline/scope of work specific to our individual project will be provided in the starting phase of the study after it is initiated as part of the planning process.”

Community responds

Many community members spoke against Resolution 23-026 during the March 28 council meeting’s public comment period, asking the council to postpone entering the agreement for the study because they felt that the project and its wide array of potential impacts had not been talked about enough as a community. Members of the council discussed how the study is the opportunity to have community conversations about the project and receive answers to questions on impact.

“My expectation is that is actually where we … start laying out those things as a community with the federal partners. I don’t think we can start this project without the federal partners at the table having that conversation, because this isn’t a city project,” council member Rachel Lord said. “Wherever it goes … it’s a group project, and that group is going to be the community … the various stakeholders at the harbor … [and] our federal partners.”

Council member Donna Aderhold recognized that “this is a project that would have an impact potentially on everybody in this community,” including those who live in Homer or use the city as a hub.

“We need to work with HDR to look much more broadly and have more stakeholder [and] scoping meetings to engage as many members of the public as possible,” she said. “That scoping process will define what is the scope of the project and what’s the scope of the analysis, particularly the environmental analysis.”

Aderhold also noted that the USACE will be one of the federal permitters of the project.

“Because the Kachemak Bay is a water of the U.S., and since we are talking about navigation in and out of a harbor, they can only permit the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” she said. “It means the alternative has to be practicable, it has to be feasible, buildable, workable, and it has to meet the purpose and need of the project. But of those alternatives that meet that, they are required to permit the one that is least environmentally damaging.”

Council member Caroline Venuti asked Port Director Bryan Hawkins whether the study could be stopped before it was completed if one of the steps in the feasibility study fails.

“Yes, we could,” Hawkins answered. “The city can stop it, and so can the Corps.”

“Collaboration” is a key term used by those involved in discussions about the study and harbor expansion, from community members to the city council to the Corps. According to the city’s news release, at the cost share agreement signing, Col. Delarosa commented that the USACE is “excited to work in partnership with the city of Homer and in collaboration with harbor users, and we value input from all members of the community so that the general investigation produces a harbor design that is right-sized for the need, can be maintained and addresses community priorities.”

City staff are working to create HomerHarborExpansion.com, a project website that will host updates and inform the public about opportunities to provide public input during the course of the study, the release states.

More information on the harbor expansion project can be found on the city’s website at https://www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/port/homer-harbor-expansion. Community members may also subscribe to periodic updates on the project from this page, and can send comments and questions to info@HomerHarborExpansion.com.

The full audio recording from the March 28 council meeting, as well as supplemental materials, can be found at https://www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/citycouncil/city-council-regular-meeting-278. Previous reporting on the harbor expansion project by Homer News can be found at https://www.homernews.com/news/murkowski-talks-harbor-expansion-election-during-homer-visit/ and https://www.homernews.com/news/assembly-urges-funding-of-homer-harbor-study/.