Alaska News

Proponents say Juneau road could provide boon during Alaska's fiscal crisis

JUNEAU -- Facing economic troubles expected to be made worse by fewer state government jobs, advocates of a road out of Juneau are saying that road construction could be an economic stimulus that can provide jobs through the downturn.

"That's important to us because we're talking about our friends and neighbors and whether they're going to be employed here or whether or not they are going to have to leave our community," said Denny Dewitt, executive director of the First Things First Alaska Foundation, a Juneau group promoting resource use and economic development.

Juneau has long been starkly divided on the question of a road north from Juneau up Lynn Canal. Under the latest plan, a road would run up the east side of Lynn Canal to a new ferry terminal at the Katzehin River, where shuttles would run to the northern Lynn Canal communities of Haines and Skagway, and their connections to the North American highway system.

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities says it is currently in the final stages of environmental and economic studies intended to decide whether the best way to improve transportation in Lynn Canal is a road or one of several ferry options -- or nothing at all.

A decision on what's formally known as the Juneau Access Improvement Project is expected in the first half of 2016, said Jeremy Woodrow, spokesman for the department.

The half-billion-dollar construction project would be the biggest Juneau has ever seen, Dewitt said, speaking before the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Thursday.

It's a project that has been talked about for decades, and officially under consideration since 1993 when the Environmental Impact Statement studies began. Community factions have debated the possible negative impacts on forests, wetlands and river estuaries that a road would cross, and possible benefits of faster and cheaper travel.

Dewitt's chamber presentation highlighted the findings of a study his group commissioned from the McDowell Group consulting firm of the regional economic benefits of a road out of Juneau.

"Juneau Access is also important to the construction industry because it represents one of the few sources in the state of project-ready funding," the McDowell report says. That includes already-appropriated state general funds of $48 million and previously approved federal funding of $154 million, for more than $200 million ready to be pumped into the local economy.

Further, almost all the state match for federal dollars has already been appropriated, so little, if any, additional state funding would be needed as a match for hundreds of millions in federal funding, Dewitt said.

McDowell projected that building the road would result in 378 direct and 530 total jobs during six years of construction, helping offset 600 jobs lost in Southeast since 2013, mostly in state government.

But a Juneau opponent of the road, Buck Lindekugel of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said Thursday that it remains a "taxpayer boondoggle," even if it was being promoted as a boon to regional economic development.

"Their central argument is they want the rest of the state to suck it up while we enjoy the jobs associated with building the road, but that's not putting Alaska first," he said.

Lindekugel said McDowell Group had helped develop a DOT cost-benefit analysis for the Juneau Access Project that determined that none of the alternatives being looked at would be worth what they'd cost to build and operate, but that ferry alternatives had the smallest losses in net present value.

But Dewitt, at the chamber, dismissed the likelihood that any of the options that call for enhanced ferry service would ever come about.

"We know there's going to be no such thing as enhanced ferry, given the budget situation," he said.

Dewitt listed numerous other benefits to Juneau and its Lynn Canal neighbors from a road, including increased sales taxes from new visitors who arrive by road and increased property taxes from higher values of of property with new road access.

While the McDowell report said highway freight costs were generally higher than barging, a road could open new Midwest markets for Juneau seafood shipped by truck.

Homer currently ships locally caught fish by truck using teams of two drivers running 24 hours a day, he said.

"They're putting halibut in the Midwest in 48 hours," Dewitt said. "We could do the same thing."

Those economic development benefits of a road are likely to increase in the future, as state budget cuts raise ferry shipping and travel costs and limit options.

"Forces have aligned to make the case for highway construction more compelling than ever before," McDowell said.

Juneau Chamber President Dan Fabrello said he grew up in Wrangell, which he called a "real island," as opposed to Juneau, which has many of the attributes of an island, despite being on the mainland.

But he said Juneau needs more than ferries.

"The ferry system has been great, but it's like having dial-up" Internet access, he said.