Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Juneau road talk heats up assembly

 


Days before Alaska Gov. Walker was expected to address residents on the topic of Juneau access, Haines Borough Assembly members wavered over what message they would present to him.

Assembly member Margaret Friedenauer requested to discuss the topic at Tuesday’s meeting so members could be on the same page about the borough’s position.

The borough has historically supported a strong ferry system and opposed construction of an east Lynn Canal Road.

A 2014 environmental impact statement identified the east-side road as the state’s preferred alternative for improving access. The 50-mile-long road would extend from Echo Cove, at the end of Juneau’s road system, to the Katzehin River delta. Travelers there would board a ferry to Haines or Skagway.

Six adopted resolutions and a letter to Alaska legislators from former Mayor Stephanie Scott dating from 1997 to 2015 were included in Tuesday’s meeting packet. The documents showed the assembly’s historic opposition to the road and support for ferry system improvements instead.

Assembly member Diana Lapham said she was not sure the community is so strongly against the project anymore.

“I am not in a position now to weigh in one way or another on the Juneau Access,” Lapham said. “I know that there are a lot of people here that would like to see the road go through...Things have changed. We have to be flexible,” Lapham said.

Lapham said she was surprised by the number of “Build the Road” bumper stickers she had recently seen in Skagway. “Broad statements give the wrong impression... Broad statements do not truly reflect what Haines wants.”

Mayor Jan Hill said: “I think that (Lapham and I) are hearing that there are people in the community that have changed their mind. And so a way for us to develop a new, updated position, which may remain the same, it might be helpful if we listen to the public when they are at the meeting because maybe things have changed.”

Member George Campbell made a motion that the assembly approach Friday with no position, but the motion died for lack of a second.

“I guess I’m a little surprised, because we actually do have an official stance,” Friedenauer said. She later said, “I’m babbling because I’m shocked.”

Juneau Road discussion was resurrected in September when Gov. Walker was quoted in an Alaska Dispatch News article by Charles Wohlforth about the project. Walker also stated in a press conference that he looked closely at the details of the project on a 14-hour flight from South Korea to Washington, D.C. last month, but he said he is “…not leaning in any particular direction at this point.”

Talk of the Juneau Access Project has been dormant since 2014 when Walker issued an administrative order to halt spending on the road and five other megaprojects around the state. He later allowed spending to move the project to a “parking spot,” as the state may have been in jeopardy of having to return some project funding to the federal government.

Friedenauer reiterated Walker’s project shutdown, and included that the state now has even less money to build and maintain a road. “I’m not understanding what new information has come about in the last year and a half that would suddenly change this borough’s position,” Friedenauer said.

Assembly members Ron Jackson and Mike Case agreed that the assembly should support the position of past assemblies.

“We have a position, and to say we don’t have one is like hiding things under the carpet,” Jackson said.

Resident Mike Denker spoke during public comments and said he plans to ask Walker if putting in a road will weaken cities around Haines and throughout Alaska and the whole coastal region.

Discussion of a road up Lynn Canal dates back at least 60 years. The Juneau Access Project, led by the state Department of Transportation, has been the topic of discussions, votes, studies and lawsuits since the late 1980s.

According to DOT’s 2014 Juneau Access environmental impact statement, the project would cost the state an estimated $574 million.

Emily Ferry, deputy director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said the price tag would be higher if that figure were updated. Ferry has worked on the road issue for the past 14 years.

“It’s very likely that if we put a huge amount of money into one project, there are fewer opportunities to invest in new ferry or regular road upgrades,” Ferry said. “It’s about choices. Is this our top priority? Is this worth the expense?”

Ferry said state-funded economists found – if the road was built – the economic return would be negative. Benefit to the public would be 23 cents for every dollar spent.

The proposed route runs through 41 avalanche chutes and would require five tunnels and three snow sheds. The road would also boast the second, third and fourth longest bridges in the state.

Advocates for the road think it will increase commerce and travel between Juneau and Lynn Canal communities as well as improve transportation.

Assembly member George Campbell said he agreed with Friedenauer, and wanted to take a “pragmatic” approach to the issue.

“Our ferries are timing out,” Campbell said. “The federal government is not forthcoming with finances to build new ferries.”

 
 

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