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Controversial road project out of Juneau delayed again

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- A controversial half-billion-dollar road out of Juneau has been delayed again, ending chances construction could start as soon as this fall.

Now the new Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Juneau Access Improvement Project isn't scheduled for release until "late" in the year, according to a posting on the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities' project website.

The 50-mile road that some in Juneau and in the department want would run north from Juneau up Lynn Canal toward the communities of Skagway and Haines. The road wouldn't actually get to those communities, however, and would instead stop at a new ferry terminal at the Katzehin River, where travelers would board shuttle ferries to continue their journey.

State transportation officials familiar with the project were unavailable Thursday to explain the delay but it is the latest in a series. The latest impact study was to have been done early this year and previously was scheduled for release late last year.

The lack of project approvals, which would also include updated construction cost estimates, didn't stop the Alaska Legislature from appropriating an additional $35 million to the project, with $5 million coming from state general funds and $30 million coming from the federal government.

Project critic Malena Marvin, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said the project isn't needed at all, given existing ferry service in Lynn Canal and tight state and federal budgets.

"The inability to accept financial reality has huge implications for other transportation projects around the state that communities really need. Who are going to be the transportation losers if the Juneau road goes forward?" Marvin asked.

The project isn't officially a road yet -- that will be determined by the impact study -- but both opponents such as Marvin and supporters such as the advocacy group Citizens Pro Road seem convinced that's what the study will recommend.

And DOT appears to state that as well in its "purpose and need" statement.

The statements reads, "Alaska’s capital city, with a population of over 31,000 residents, is the largest community on the North American continent not connected to the continental highway system," and says its goal is to save money, meet travel demand and give residents more opportunities to travel.

The most recent estimate of the cost to build a road along the rugged, avalanche-prone canal was $500 million in 2010 when DOT stopped doing annual updates to project costs. Over the years the Legislature has appropriated about $200 million for Juneau access, including this year's appropriation.

The last time an environmental impact statement was done, in 2006, it recommended a road. It first looked at options such as the road to the Katzehin River on the east side of Lynn Canal and a road up the west side of Lynn Canal that would also require a shuttle ferry, as well as the existing ferry service.

SEACC challenged the adequacy of that study in court, and U.S. District Court Judge John Sedgwick ruled that the study didn't adequately consider meeting the goal of improved transportation in Lynn Canal with better ferry service.

The state appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel upheld Sedgwick. Citizens Pro Road called on Gov. Sean Parnell to appeal to the full 9th Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court but the state instead chose to complete a supplemental impact statement to address the failings of the first study.

Marvin said she's assuming the department will again propose a road in the new study but is only hinting at legal action in response.

"Of course we want to look at the EIS, just as we did in 2006, to see if it is an appropriate analysis. We have concerns that it will be inadequate, just like it was then," she said.

When the new draft supplemental environmental impact statement is released, there will be a public comment period before the final Record of Decision is published, now scheduled for early 2015.