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Appeals court upholds ruling against access road's environmental review

Posted: May 4, 2011 - 8:15pm

On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a previous ruling that prevents construction on a highly debated access road project.

Circuit Judge Mary M. Schroeder opined that the Juneau Access Improvement Project failed to consider alternatives for improving the existing ferry service, a decision ruled by Judge John Sedwick of the Alaska District Court in February 2009.

The project in question involves a nearly 51-mile road along Lynn Canal and the construction of a new ferry terminal.

Six environmental groups were the plaintiffs against the State of Alaska plus the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Wednesday’s ruling affirmed that the Environmental Impact Statement violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to consider plans for improving and making use of the ferry infrastructure already in place as an alternative.

“We’re very encouraged by the court ruling. They applied the common sense approach to their review, evaluating and taking a hard look at the ferry service,” said Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Executive Director Lindsey Ketchel.

“It is the right decision. The Federal Highway Administration and the Forest Service failed to look at the most obvious alternative, which is to improve access to Juneau using existing ferries,” SEACC Grassroots Attorney Buck Lindekugel said in a release. “Why should we build an expensive and unnecessary road — which will still require a ferry connection — when improved ferry schedules, fares and other service could meet community needs?”

Improving the existing ferry system is something the plaintiffs hold as a better answer than the new road.

“The decision reaffirms the State’s obligation to seriously consider for the first time the one alternative that could improve access and save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars: better ferry service in Lynn Canal with existing boats,” Eric Jorgensen, an Earthjustice attorney in the case, states in the release.

“They erred in not considering improved ferry service, and clearly, this half a billion dollar road was going to pull money from many communities that need improvements,” said Jan Wrentmore, chair of the Skagway Marine Access Commission. “It was very reaffirming that the court saw the process was flawed, and we testified year after year on this issue that they were not considering giving improved marine access the consideration it deserved.”

Wrentmore said the group has been working on this issue since 1997.

The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities states the road project is intended to provide easier, less expensive access to the capital. The fate of the project is not yet known.

“The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities is disappointed in the ruling, but we will be exploring our options with the Federal Highway administration and the governors office. It is too early to say what that course of action will be,” said Chef Communications Officer Brenda Hewitt.

“In the end it should be grounded in economic reality. We think we’re reaching a time when federal spending needs to be frugal. We feel by investing and improving and encouraging the current ferry system, we’ll be meeting the state’s needs quicker and at a price tag the state can afford,” said Ketchel.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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