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Parnell hails DOT's new Juneau road plan; Walker calls for fiscal caution

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 18, 2014

JUNEAU -- The Alaska Department of Transportation released a new plan for a Juneau road Thursday, with Gov. Sean Parnell's re-election campaign following up later by highlighting his support for the road and challenging opponent Bill Walker to do the same.

The new plan for what's formally called the "Juneau Access Project" would cost $574 million to build, up $100 million from previous estimates, and is one in a lengthy list of megaprojects that Alaska has long studied but been unable to build.

This effort, too, is likely to be challenged, with an environmental group calling it an "incredible boondoggle."

The new road plan and cost numbers came out in a new draft supplemental environmental impact statement released by the department.

The original cost projection was for $282 million in 2006.

It would consist of a road from Juneau running 50 miles north to a new ferry terminal at the Katzehin River. From there shuttle ferries would take travelers to Haines and Skagway, where they could connect with the Alaska Highway running through Canada.

The project was once touted as a cost savings to the state by replacing a ferry run with a road, but the new plan shows a cost of $20 million annually to operate and maintain the road, including keeping it open through steep terrain dotted with avalanche chutes and operating new ferries.

Parnell's statement Thursday, in a press release from his campaign, gave new reasons for support.

"As governor, I have fought for this project because I know it will create jobs, increase access, and grow economic opportunity for Southeast Alaskans," he said.

The plan says that while building the road would cost the state more, it would reduce travel time and that the shorter ferry ride would be less costly. That would entice more people to travel, thus reducing the per-trip cost to the state.

Over the years, Juneau has been divided on the road issue, with opposition stronger in Haines and Skagway.

Parnell challenged Walker on his statement that he wanted to finish existing projects before beginning new ones, and said he considers the road an existing project.

"Where is Bill Walker on Juneau Access?" Parnell asked.

Walker said he would wait until the state determined whether it could afford to build the road before deciding whether to go ahead with it.

"We're in the biggest fiscal deficit in our state's history and this administration has no plan of recovery," Walker said.

And he criticized the Parnell administration for trying to win local support with capital projects.

"It's this kind of pre-election pandering that's gotten us into the fiscal mess that we're in," he said.

Walker said he also is adamant that any road plan not jeopardize funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Pat Kemp said in the plan announcement Thursday that state ferry service would actually be improved, because the mainline ferry now serving Lynn Canal would become available to serve other communities, such as Sitka, which want better service.

The supplemental EIS looked at multiple options for improving access to Juneau, starting with the required "no action" alternative, roads up either side of Lynn Canal, and better ferry service, before again settling on the road up the fjord's east side.

The original EIS had been successfully challenged in court by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, and a federal judge ruled that it did not adequately take into account the option of improved ferry service using existing assets.

SEACC executive director Malena Marvin, who made the "boondoggle" comment, said the new EIS is little better than the last.

"The state did the study to see if the road extension would be a good idea, and we think the study shows pretty clearly that it isn't," she said.

"The study shows that the road extension is outrageously expensive both to build and maintain, jeopardizes traveler safety, and the fact remains that the local communities don't want it," she said.

DOT will take public comment on the new EIS until Nov. 10 and will hold public hearings in Juneau, Haines and Skagway before that.

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