September 26, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 38

Pro-Juneau Road group brings presentation to town

A pro-Juneau Access road group convened in Haines Sept. 16, privately inviting locals to come and hear why the present ferry system is unsustainable and how the road would benefit Juneau and the Upper Lynn Canal.

Citizens Pro Road formed in 1997 after the first draft of the Juneau Access road’s environmental impact statement was released. Members met in the dining room of the Halsingland Hotel to present facts and figures on the contentious project.

Win Gruening, a retired Juneau banker and member of the group, said the gathering was “not an open meeting, but not a closed meeting.”

Gruening said the group didn’t want to get into a debate, but rather wanted to present the facts behind the issue and let residents decide whether they want to support the project or not. “We heard there was a lot of misinformation traveling around Haines.”

Member Paulette Simpson said the group also hopes to travel to Skagway in the near future. “We’re just putting our toe in the water and talking to a few people we knew in town,” Simpson said of the Haines meeting.

The group spent the afternoon running through a presentation about three times. Using figures from the Alaska departments of Labor and Transportation, Simpson and other members, including retired DOT employee Sandy Williams, expounded on the benefits of the road.

Williams described the group as a mix of “industry folks” and residents who believe in the economics and need for road access in Juneau. “Can you imagine Skagway not having road access out of there? Or Haines, how you would feel about it? We think we ought to have, in some respect, access also,” he said.

Williams said in 1913, 25 percent of the Legislature was from Southeast. In 2013, that number had dropped to 10 percent. Williams also said while Southeast’s population is projected to drop, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley’s is expected to boom.

Just for the Lynn Canal, the ferry system is spending $20 million annually to operate; it is only making $6 million of that back, resulting in a large subsidy, Williams said. Southeast’s diminished clout in the Legislature paired with decreasing population and less-than-ideal economics means the ferry system’s funding will continue to decrease, he added.

“We can’t continue this subsidy,” he said.

Williams worked as chief design engineer, state maintenance engineer and Southeast engineer during his 30-year tenure at DOT.

Executive assistant to the Haines Borough manager Darsie Culbeck asked whether a road up the west side of Lynn Canal is still being looked into, but Williams said the draft environmental impact statement was pretty clear in its preference for the east side due to “so many obstacles” on the opposite side.

Resident and business owner Kristine Harder attended the meeting, and said she was surprised by the presented statistics.

“I was completely taken aback by the projected population growth of the Mat-Su Valley, the shrinkage of Southeast, and how our political influence will continue to erode.   It’s easy to see where the rest of the state’s push to defund the (ferry system) is coming from,” Harder said.  

Hotel owner Jeff Butcher said the group rented the room for the afternoon.