May 9, 2013 | Volume 43, No. 18

Lynn Canal towns divided on road plan

Although energy, tourism and harbor issues were all topics slated for discussion during the April 26 Northern Lynn Canal Neighbors Summit in Skagway, concerns and opinions about the ferry system and Juneau access road largely dominated the three-hour meeting.

Elected officials from Haines, Skagway, Juneau and Whitehorse attended the summit to trade notes on regional issues. Mayor Stephanie Scott, manager Mark Earnest, deputy clerk Michelle Webb and five Haines Borough Assembly members attended the conference, which was initiated by Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford.

Discussion of shore power and regional hydroelectric projects – primarily the prospective West Creek project, located near Skagway – kicked off the summit, but Haines officials were relatively silent on the issue. Scott said that West Creek’s realization would be a “tremendous benefit” to Haines, but also made a larger policy statement about energy projects and who should be responsible for financing them.

“I’m looking for business plans with these projects that name the stakeholders, and if the state is a stakeholder, then let them come to the table with some funds, and if they’re not, let them say so,” Scott said, noting it seems like the Alaska Energy Authority has made it pretty clear they do not want to be involved with financing of the West Creek project.

Discussion about transportation issues heated up before the group even formally transitioned to that section of the agenda, with Scott emphasizing that potential for the fruition of the Juneau Road project shouldn’t jeopardize or undermine maintaining a ferry system that adequately serves Southeast communities.

“The idea of a road link is still out there – and that may happen, too – but what we’re going to have today, tomorrow, and in the next 10 years are the ferries. So we need to make sure that system is intact, efficient, and viable,” Scott said

Juneau Mayor Sanford maintained that he “loves the ferry system,” but said he is alarmed by its inefficiencies and hemorrhaging of funds. “In my mind, the ferry system has gotten out of hand with those costs. And I think there are other people within the state of Alaska that passed a vote on it that think that way, too,” Sanford said.

Sanford was also adamant he would not budge in his estimation that building a road from Juneau to Katzehin is critical for economic development.

“I think we’ve basically made up our minds already. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all... I think we’ve pretty well worn out all the different paths and all the different ways of getting either a road or better ferry service within our Southeast region,” Sanford said.

Haines assembly member Jerry Lapp said if the road is constructed, it should be on the west side of the canal, where the terrain is gentler. The mountainsides on the eastern side of the canal, where the road is proposed, would be scarred by blasting and ruin the scenery prized by cruise ship companies that travel up that route, Lapp said.

Assembly member Debra Schnabel said she found the summit helpful in terms of public relations and networking, although she acknowledged the agenda was “weak” and no important business came out of the meeting.

“Oftentimes government works on relationships, and I think this was an opportunity to build relationships,” Schnabel said.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz (R-Juneau) participated in person, while Rep. Beth Kerttula (D-Juneau) and Rep. Dennis Egan (D-Juneau) attended telephonically. Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka) was scheduled to attend, but made a last-minute cancellation and traveled to Klukwan instead.

The assemblies tentatively agreed to meet for another summit in Haines in November.