Alaska News

Southeast Alaska road battle reveals community divisions

JUNEAU -- Residents turned out overwhelmingly Tuesday to oppose a road out of town that the state wants to build, with many saying Alaska's new budget deficits mean it can no longer afford the more than half-billion-dollar project.

"I would like our money spent on education. That's our future," said SueAnn Randall of Juneau.

The hearing, held by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities along with the Federal Highway Administration, looked at the latest plan for what's officially called the "Juneau Access Project."

The department looked at several options for improving transportation in Lynn Canal, the fjord that stretches 90 miles north from Juneau to the communities of Haines and Skagway and the continental road system. An environmental impact statement has looked at several road and ferry options to provide more travel opportunity there.

The current proposal, alternative 2B in the EIS, calls for extending the road 50 miles north to a new ferry terminal that would provide connections to Haines and Skagway, shaving time and cost for the trip for some travelers. It would cost $574 million to construct, including the ferries and a new terminal at Katzehin River.

Passions over the road run high in all three communities, though Juneau has been more divided.

At the first of three hearings in the cities, in Juneau on Tuesday, road critics vastly outnumbered supporters, though a DOT spokesman said it is common statewide for project critics in general to be more likely to turn out for hearings.

Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford supported the road, though, saying Juneau needs the extra transportation capacity the road will provide, as well as the jobs that will come from construction.

"I, for one, am 100 percent behind alternative 2B," he said.

He emphasized he was providing his personal opinion.

The public testimony often revealed deeply held beliefs that go well beyond the project specifics. Some, it seems, don't want a road connection at any price, even for free, with love for state ferries and Juneau's isolation both praised repeatedly.

"A lot of Juneau's charm derives from it being somewhat isolated. I would really hate to see that lost," said Gretchen Bishop of Juneau.

The critics listed a host of problems they said were part of the selection of alternative 2B, including dangerous avalanche chutes that dot the corridor, difficulty that walk-on passengers would have reaching a terminal many miles from the city, environmental impacts and the intrusion of a road into the scenic fjord.

But the road's supporters say they want to be able to leave town and dismissed the cost concerns, which will be even higher if construction is delayed.

"Apparently, people say it costs too much money. Well, the capital funds are federal," said Dick Knapp, a former Department of Transportation commissioner and a member of Citizens Pro-Road, an local road advocacy group.

Road opponents praised the ferries as an alternative, but Knapp said they cost the state general fund a subsidy of $120 million a year.

"That's $120 million that could go to education, sanitation, anything you want in the state. That's general fund money," he said.

The EIS shows the state's new plan would cost $20 million a year to operate and subsidize the shuttle ferries at the north end of Lynn Canal, more than the current ferry subsidy there.

Many of the audience members expressed strong concerns about having to drive 50 miles to catch a ferry, on a road that's likely to be more dangerous than a similar trip on a ferry.

Resident Dixie Hood warned that everyone ought to be concerned about not being able to safely get to a ferry when they get older.

"If you are not yet a senior, with luck you will be eventually," she said.

The road route crosses more than 40 avalanche paths, and the EIS warns that it may be closed several times per year during peak snow season.

During the four-hour hearing in Juneau, much of the testimony focused on what speakers said were flaws in the EIS.

That's good, said state officials, who said the intent of the hearing was to find flaws while the plan is still in the draft stage. It is not expected to be final until early next year, they said.

But Skagway Marine Access Commission Chair Jan Wrentmore said that when the hearings come to her town the DOT is likely to hear accusations that the plan has more than flaws. She said the study appears to have been slanted toward the desired road outcome.

"I think the document is extremely disappointing," she said, despite being in the works for years following the successful court challenge of the previous road plan.

"They spent a million dollars and the document is still skewed to provide the outcome they wanted to see," she said.

Haines resident Clay Frick said the current ferry system provides service to Juneau, rather than Katzehin, which makes walk-on passage possible. And more importantly, it avoids a dangerous, lengthy drive.

"There will be deaths on that road," he said.

The EIS confirms fatalities can be expected, with ferry supporters pointing out its 50 years of safe operation in comparison.

The public hearings continue online and by other means until Nov. 10.