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Parnell abandons Juneau Road appeal

State will study expanding ferry options

Posted: September 14, 2011 - 11:07pm

Gov. Sean Parnell has decided against appealing a court ruling against the Juneau Access Project, and will instead do what environmental opponents of the Lynn Canal road have suggested all along — study improved ferry service as an alternative.

The decision to abandon the legal appeal and spend as long as two years developing a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement goes against the advice of Citizens Pro-Road, the Juneau road advocacy group, but CPR chair Dick Knapp said he supports the governor’s action.

“The fact that the governor took this action shows that he supports the road,” said Knapp, a former commissioner of the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, which has been a strong advocate for the road.

Knapp said road supporters want whichever strategy is most likely to be successful, and Parnell, the Alaska Department of Law, and his old agency are in the best position to make that determination.

Pat Kemp, DOT deputy commissioner for highways, said the additional studies to complete the SEIS would likely take two years.

A Supreme Court appeal would likely take one to two years, and the state would only have a 1 percent chance of the case even being heard by the court, according to the department.

Parnell, in a statement released by the department Wednesday, characterized his decision as moving the road forward.

“The Juneau Access Project is a critical infrastructure project for Juneau and Southeast Alaska. It’s is time to move it ahead,” he said.

The state’s current plan is to build a road 50.8 miles north of Juneau along Lynn Canal to the Katzehin River mouth, where a new ferry terminal would be built to connect to Haines and Skagway with shuttle ferries.

It was most recently estimated to cost nearly half a billion dollars, though annual cost estimate revisions were suspended while court challenges were ongoing. Kemp said the new study will result in a new cost estimate being developed.

Environmental groups, including the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, challenged the project in court, saying a “no build” option was not adequately studied.

Federal District Court Judge John Sedwick said the state should have considered meeting the need for improved transportation in Lynn Canal by using existing ferry resources instead.

The state appealed that decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where it was rejected by a 2-1 vote of a three-judge panel. Alaska then sought a hearing before a full panel, but not a single judge of the appeals court agreed with that request.

That left Alaska with the options of either complying with Sedwick’s ruling or facing the daunting prospect of a successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

SEACC’s Executive Director Lindsey Ketchel said the group was not surprised, but was disappointed, at the strategy Parnell took. She acknowledged that she’d be similarly disappointed had Parnell chosen the Supreme Court appeal.

She said the state needs to abandon some of the expensive projects in pre-development, such as roads to Skagway, Umiat and Nome at a cost of billions of dollars it can’t afford.

Ketchel said she was disappointed in Parnell’s leadership.

“I’d rather have a governor trying to figure out how to get people moving around today with current assets we have here in Southeast and deal with the real issues we need to deal with,” she said.

In addition to the nearly $500 million cost of the Juneau Access Project, the road to prospective oil fields at Umiat is estimated to cost $400 million and the road to Nome $2.7 billion, she said.

Ketchel said she wasn’t sure what the outcome of the required Lynn Canal ferry study would be.

“I hope they spend quality time doing a very thorough analysis of the ferry option and a no-road option,” she said.

That should take into consideration, she said, both the ongoing maintenance cost and the steep terrain along the road route.

“Quite frankly, that terrain is so intense I want to make sure they’re doing a thorough job there,” she said.

According to the existing EIS, the road project proposed by the state is already estimated to cost more to operate and maintain than the existing ferry service costs.

The goal, though, is to get the road Juneau and Southeast needs, Knapp said.

The arguments of cost and environmental impact that road opponents make are just being used to keep Juneau isolated, he said.

“All this hogwash about the environment and this and that about the cost are just that, hogwash,” he said. “And I’m being polite when I say ‘hogwash.’”

Kemp said he didn’t know what the cost of the additional delay would be, but the DOT Wednesday issued a request for proposals for a consulting firm to assist with the new studies. The RFP anticipates a cost at between $1 million and $2.5 million for the study.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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