JUNEAU -- Two costly, challenging and controversial road projects are being pushed this year by the Parnell administration, and on Thursday all sides made a quick case before a joint meeting of the House and Senate transportation committees.
Up for consideration: a 200-mile road to the Northwestern Alaska Ambler mining district and a nearly 50-mile road up the avalanche-prone coast north of Juneau.
State Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell and the House Transportation Committee chairwoman, gave agencies 25 minutes to make their case for each road, and then allowed 15 minutes each to a designated project critic and backer. Lawmakers had little time for questions.
The state Department of Transportation estimates the Juneau road would cost an estimated $500 million, a figure state Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, questioned as low. The Ambler project is still being refined -- it could end up a one-lane, industrial road -- and its estimated cost range is $290 million to $400 million, according to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.
Gov. Sean Parnell is requesting $35 million for the budget year starting July 1 for the Juneau road and $8.5 million for Ambler. Most of the money for the Juneau road -- $30 million -- would come from the federal government.
The Juneau project wouldn't connect the isolated capital city to the road system but rather would end a few miles short at a proposed new ferry terminal on Chilkoot Inlet just past the Katzehin River.
From there, drivers would have to take a ferry to get anywhere, but there would be eight round trips a day to Haines and six trips to Skagway, far more than the average of one a day to each destination now, said Mike Vigue, who's been the Juneau road project manager for the state Department of Transportation. His last day was Thursday -- he's moving to a federal post, he said after the hearing.
The goal is to shorten the ferry ride to get people to their destination more quickly, move more people over the course of a day and save drivers money, Vigue said. For instance the trip to Haines now takes more than nine hours, counting waiting time, and costs $286 for a family of four. With a new Juneau road covering most of the distance, the total trip would take under 3.5 hours and cost less than $60, according to the DOT.
Ferries are essential transportation in Southeast Alaska. But they are expensive to run and heavily subsidized by the state, Jeff Ottesen, DOT director of program development, told lawmakers.
DOT estimated the costs of buying, maintaining and operating a large ferry over its 50-year life at $1.72 billion. Ferry riders contribute about one-third of the $1 billion in operating costs included in that figure, but the government pays for most of it, lawmakers were told.
The state is planning smaller day boats for the short ferry trips from the end of the Juneau road, and they are cheaper to operate, Ottesen said.
THE AVALANCHE ZONE
Clay Good, a Juneau teacher who spoke on behalf of opponents, told lawmakers he questioned "the quality and the integrity of DOT's plan." He called it "an expensive and dangerous road to a remote ferry terminal far from the population center it is meant to serve."
The road would make travel less convenient, especially for foot passengers who might not have a way to get to the new terminal, Good said.
The road would cross 36 avalanche zones, and DOT has projected it would have to be closed 34 days a year, he told legislators.
DOT's Vigue said after the hearing said those figures were outdated. A new environmental study will be out in about three weeks that shows how the avalanche risk can be lessened through engineering structures like snow sheds as well as avalanche mitigation work by crews, he said.
Good told lawmakers that most Juneau residents don't want the road.
"If the Department of Transportation can't sell the Juneau access road to Juneau, who can they sell it to?" he said.
He was referring to a 2000 advisory vote. A slight majority of voters picked improved ferry service over a road to the north.
Juneau's legislators are largely supportive of the road. Rep. Cathy Munoz, a Republican, and Sen. Dennis Egan, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Transportation committee, both said they want it.
"I wish they would have built the road in 1972," Egan said. But Rep. Sam Kito, the newly appointed Democrat, said he still had questions about the operation of that distant ferry terminal.
AMBLER MINING ROAD
Lawmakers also heard a pitch for the Ambler mining road, a project that DOT has turned over to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.
The Ambler area, northeast of Kotzebue, is rich in copper, zinc, lead and silver, but without a road, it cannot be developed, AIDEA deputy director Mark Davis told legislators.
Many issues still need resolution including a route, whether it will be one-lane or two lanes and whether there will be any public access, he said.
The agency is working to take the project through environmental permitting but expects that industry will ultimately pay for much of the road, Davis said. It will be similar to the road to the successful Red Dog zinc mine near Kotzebue, he said.
When will a financial plan emerge? French asked.
That will happen after the permitting issues are settled, Davis said.
Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, said mining produces little state revenue and the leading mine developer, NovaCopper, has only pledged to pay $116 million toward a road.
The state is wasting money on various "roads to resources" projects that it may never finish, she said.
"The administration has gotten ahead of itself," she said. Four communities have come out against the road, Bettles, Evansville, Alatna and Allakaket, she said.
But Greta Schuerch, corporate and public policy liaison on NANA Regional Corp., told lawmakers that most shareholders want responsible development and the jobs that come with it. A structured environmental permitting process is underway, as NANA wanted, she said.
Alaska Natives who live in the region and depend on subsistence should be at the center of the decision, not special interest groups, Schuerch said.
The NANA region doesn't include those four communities that oppose the road, she said in an answer to a question.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 952-3965.
By LISA DEMER