State transportation planners are asking to take on the federal government's legal liability and millions of dollars in staff and consultant costs so they can avoid having another agency approve their work.
The Alaska Department of Transportation's track record does not inspire confidence in giving it the power to review, approve and defend its own environmental impact statements, now the responsibility of the Federal Highway Administration.
The proposal is open for public comment until May 31 but five new staff positions have already been budgeted at a cost of $1.2 million. The state would also accept the federal government's legal liability for the complex, endless litigation over these projects, although those costs could still be covered mostly by federal dollars.
Pat Pitney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said state officials expect no real cost from the change, because DOT will complete the environmental process faster and more efficiently, bringing in savings. Gov. Sean Parnell's administration developed the plan and Gov. Bill Walker is still pursuing it.
Speed is the objective — to get big projects built faster. But making mistakes faster is not a good goal.
As Alaska leaves behind an era of spending on uncompleted megaprojects, we have the environmentalists and gadflies to thank that DOT and other state agencies didn't sink us even deeper into the hole we are in today. They used this process to get the information they needed.
Environmental impact statements don't stop bad decisions — that's not how the process works — but they force agencies to research their plans, producing the evidence that can expose their folly.
The Juneau Access Road is a vivid example of how this process works.
DOT did an environmental impact statement, or EIS, that ignored the option of improving ferry service to Juneau with existing vessels rather than chipping a road and series of tunnels along the cliff of the Lynn Canal fjord. Environmentalists sued, and a judge made DOT planners go back and look again.
The new EIS showed that ferries were less expensive. But the state was still free to choose the most expensive option. After all, the most expensive project might give the greatest benefit to the public.
Buried 1,421 pages deep in that report, however, was a nugget of information that deflated the project. Economists at the McDowell Group, hired by the state, had found that the project would return 28 cents in benefit to the public for every dollar spent by the government.
By comparison, another new McDowell study shows the ferry system generally brings back more than $2 in benefit for every dollar spent by the state. Regardless of that, it doesn't take an MBA to realize that spending a dollar to get back 28 cents doesn't make any sense.
But DOT ignored that information in its EIS analysis and buried it deep in the document where no one might notice. Why? My guess, from watching the agency for years, is that DOT as an institution really wanted to build the road. The EIS was just a hurdle to get past. The decision had already been made.
I know plenty of smart, ethical people at DOT. But the agency's culture is stuck in the past. Rather than listening and responding to the public, it tries to convince people that its plans are what they need. Influencing DOT, or even figuring out what it's up to, is difficult and beyond most people's patience.
DOT officials did not reply to my requests for comment. I began contacting them Thursday morning.
An environmental impact statement may seem like busy work but for the public it can be the only way to get the truth.
Economist Gregg Erickson heard about the cost-benefit finding on the Juneau access project through his economist grapevine. He went looking for it in the report. He publicized the finding in a newspaper column and comments to the federal government.
The Juneau Access Road is a zombie project now — it is still consuming money but only until engineers can finish the paperwork to put it to bed.
I repeat this story to demonstrate why DOT should not be trusted to check its own homework.
Yes, it is galling to have the agency ask for new positions when the state is in financial straits. I am skeptical that savings will cover that cost, or the cost of lawsuits challenging environmental studies. To get this approval, the state will have to waive its immunity, opening itself up to those suits.
But the bigger issue is the quality of our decision making.
Now the studies are reviewed and approved by the Federal Highway Administration, which absorbs the cost. Having DOT bureaucrats submit their work to other DOT bureaucrats for review and approval could lead to less thorough results and more lawsuits. No one outside their circle of predetermined decisions will be involved.
Only two states have done this: California and Texas. Maybe it makes sense at their scale. At ours, it does not.
Information will also be harder to get for activists. Although the federal Freedom of Information Act has its own problems, the state's system for providing public records is worse. When state officials don't want to comply, they can charge huge fees for lawyers or other staffers to review records, effectively making them unavailable.
"Why would we accept this responsibility now?" said Emily Ferry, acting director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and an opponent of the Juneau access project since 2003. "It's unclear why this makes DOT's life any easier, other than losing that last check and balance."
Ferry said she hates wasting money but her more basic reason for opposing the project is to protect the rich wildlife habitat at Berner's Bay and the scenery along Lynn Canal. Other people have different values and would sacrifice those resources for a road.
But we can't have that debate without accurate, impartial information. That's why we need a legitimate environmental process with an outside referee — not having the same agency approve the information that we know is determined to get one answer.
Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.
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