After the state lost in two courts, the Parnell administration said Wednesday it would prepare a new environmental impact statement for a 50-mile road from Juneau to a proposed ferry terminal near Haines and Skagway rather than appeal again, this time to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state announced its decision to go back to the planning process two months after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of a federal judge in Alaska, who said the original environmental impact statement for the Juneau Access Project, from 2006, was inadequate.
A coalition of environmental organizations led by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council sued that year to stop the project, which would drive a new road deep into the Tongass National Forest north of Juneau.
While the project wouldn't connect Juneau directly to the North American road system, it would have brought it much closer. The $470 million project would end at a dock about 5 miles from Haines and 20 miles from Skagway, just a quick shuttle ferry away from the highway.
Brenda Hewitt, a spokeswoman for the state transportation department, said the state will bow to the Feb. 13, 2009, order of U.S. District Judge John Sedwick. He ruled that the original environmental impact statement failed to balance the impacts of beefing up existing ferry service with building a new road.
"It doesn't hurt us to go back and look at the whole thing and give the public one more chance to weigh in on it," Hewitt said. It will take about two years to conclude the planning work, she said.
Under that schedule, if the state had chosen not to file its appeal with the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 2009, the supplemental environmental impact statement would be done about now.
"It wasn't a case without merit," said Sean Lynch, the assistant attorney general who brought the doomed appeal. "It's unfortunate that it worked out the way it did."
Given what was said Wednesday, it was unclear how seriously the state would re-examine the non-construction alternatives. In a statement to the media, the transportation department said Gov. Sean Parnell ordered that the project be moved "toward construction by immediately preparing a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement with the Federal Highway Administration."
The Federal Highway Administration would provide a substantial portion of the cost of the project. The federal funding and the use of national forest land set up the impact-statement requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.
Lindsey Ketchel, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said she was disappointed that Parnell's road construction vision appeared to be undimmed, citing his administration's studies of other pioneering roads to Nome and the North Slope settlement of Umiat.
"The road to Nome is going to be $2.7 billion, Umiat is about a half billion, then he's adding a $500 million road for Juneau access and expecting the federal government to write a check for all of this," she said. "At some point, the governor has to sit down and be upfront about what the federal government can afford for his transportation vision and do the proper pre-development analysis on those projects."
Ketchel acknowledged that Juneau remains deeply split over highway access but said that SEACC members in Skagway and Haines pressed the organization to oppose the project.
The Juneau Access Project has kicked around for about two decades under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Sedwick incorporated five pages of project history in his 24-page decision, noting that the first draft of an environmental impact statement appeared in 1997. The governor then, Democrat Tony Knowles, picked the current route three years later, then stopped work on the project, Sedwick said. Gov. Frank Murkowski, a Republican, restarted it in 2002, he said.
The plan at first was to take the road all the way to Skagway. But in 2005, federal highway planners determined the full-length road would require land in the Skagway and White Pass District National Historic Landmark, Sedwick said. While its possible to get that authorization, the state scaled back the project, suggesting ferry shuttles to bridge the last few miles.
The final environmental impact statement was issued Jan. 18, 2006, the last year of the Murkowski administration.
Ketchel said she doesn't oppose transportation development, but it needs to fit Southeast -- and better ferries do that, she said.
"We're off on our own little island surrounded by ice fields, so it isn't like there's a lot of opportunity," she said. "That's how people get around, on ferries. It's part of our culture, it's our signature -- it's who we are. Salmon and ferries."
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.