Point of View: Homer’s harbor expansion fantasy

Back in 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers analyzed the cost/benefit of expanding our harbor, with resoundingly negative results: Yes, there are a lot of small boats who want slips, and, yes, our harbor wasn’t built for large vessels, but expansion would cost far more than the benefits it would bring. But now we are moving ahead. The Corps of Engineers has officially started investigating the City’s proposal to build a large-vessel harbor expansion, and they are holding a public meeting on May 18 at 12:30 at Islands & Ocean Visitor Center to hear what residents want.

Proponents are talking about moorage for about 200 large vessels — up from the current 40 — with accommodations for cruise ships and container ships, large man-made islands for parking and shipyard, and a new road to accommodate the extra traffic.

What changed? In 2019, the City worked with the Corps to do a second preliminary cost-benefit analysis, seeking to drive down the valuation of costs and drive up benefits. Sadly, this second analysis — the document that is whole reason we are talking about a harbor expansion for real now — called the “Homer Planning Assistance to States (PAS) Section 22 Navigation Improvements Technical Report,” is full of hot air, fantasy and in some instances, willful misrepresentation. If we continue to talk about a harbor expansion with inflated “calculations” of benefits and empty cost estimates, we will saddle ourselves with the enormous expense of constructing and maintaining a huge harbor built on a nice stable mix of thin air and hubris. What follows are some take-aways from the Corps 2019 Technical Report and conversations with Harbormaster Brian Hawkins.


The Corps 2019 Technical Report estimates a cost of $72.5 million to $81 million for an expansion. But now, Harbormaster Brian Hawkins says we are looking at a minimum of $300 million to build the project. Why did the price tag more than triple between 2019 and 2023? Whatever the reason, the City would be expected to provide 25% of the cost, so now we are talking about a $75 million City bond (the police department was a $5 million dollar bond, for reference) just to dredge a basin and build a breakwater. This number doesn’t even cover construction of floats, parking, road, power lines, etc. Our little city would be 100% responsible for all that.

While the cost assessment in the report could be called an underestimate, many of the “benefits” could be called wishful thinking or misrepresentation. The report calculates benefits as dollars over a 50-year period. One of the biggest “benefits” identified in the report is that those in the commercial fishing fleet who, on paper “homeport” in Homer, but in reality keep their boats elsewhere, like Seattle, would move to Homer if the harbor were bigger. That is a big if. There are any number of reasons why people don’t keep their boats in Homer, not least of which is the low costs of goods, services, and labor in the Lower 48. So, to get a better handle on this important statistic, the City sent out a survey to about 1,000 large vessel owners to see if they would move to Homer. The result?

Two survey respondents homeporting in Kodiak revealed they were seeking permanent moorage at Homer. I don’t think that was the resounding support they were hoping for. Two boats out of about 1,000 said they would move here. Despite the fact that people said they would not move their boats to Homer, the report just goes ahead and assumes that they would, that they all would. And the benefit of all these boats’ “Avoided Travel” is valued at $7.4 million to $14 million; tack on $2.5 million to $3.5 million for “Opportunity Cost of Time” and you’ve got yourself a big number! These numbers are a significant chunk of the supposed benefit of the harbor expansion, and it is just a wish, a wish that goes against the only available evidence. Not a good foundation.

While the question of what kind of large vessels would stay in Homer is fundamental, the report doesn’t say much more on this topic than: “The increasing number of large vessels that seek moorage in Homer include oil exploration and research vessels that would prefer to winter in Homer rather than at ports further south.” How many oil vessels can be expected to come here when the cost of extracting natural gas from Cook Inlet is becoming prohibitive is a question that goes ignored. A short walk through the harbor tells anyone that most large vessels here are tenders and crabbers. A rational person expects declines in Alaska’s fisheries over the next 50 years due to warming oceans, but the report ignores this.

Big “benefits” padding comes from a calculation of a 15% increase of “subsistence” catch. The report asserts that we will increase the value of our subsistence catch to the tune of $12.5 million to $28 million, which is 18-31% of the total “benefit” of the proposed expansion. The reason this justification isn’t repeated at city council meetings, etc. is because it is absurd. More people trying to harvest the same fish and game will not lead to more total harvest.

People need to show up to the Corps’s public meeting on May 18 at Islands and Ocean to speak up on the harbor expansion question. If Homer wants to support marine industries and harbor users (I think we do), isn’t there a better use of our money? Like repairing our existing harbor ($74 million), improving our roads (tried pulling a boat on Kachemak Drive recently?), investing in marine trades education (what happened to the high school welding class?), improving housing options for workers and families in the trades …

Homer’s harbor is crowded in the summer. But from where I sit, there isn’t much evidence that it is worth the cost to expand it. Anything we build will take significant local funds, it will cost a lot to keep up, and there is no indication that many large vessels will want to use it.

Penelope Haas has worked in commercial salmon fisheries for 14 years, is a board member of Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, likes hunting, gathering, fishing and exploring the Kenai Peninsula.