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Alaska pushes ahead with Juneau road extension

Posted: December 18, 2011 - 1:20am

The idea of a road link to Juneau has been around at least as far back as the administration of Gov. Jay Hammond. It has been knocked down by lack of funding, a lack of interest and, most recently, legal action. However, the idea always seems to find new life.

Some see it as a road to greater Juneau prosperity, an alternative to air and sea links in an isolated community, as an extra degree of freedom. Some see it as redundant to Southeast’s existing marine highway system. A half-billion dollar boondoggle susceptible to avalanche, landslide and destined to wreck environmental havoc.

Earlier this year the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a injunction by Federal District Court Judge John Sedgwick that has prohibited all work on the road project since 2009.

The Circuit Court decision left Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities and the Federal Highway Administration with a few choices. Re-do the original enjoined Final Environmental Impact Statement, appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court — with little chance of being heard — or drop the project altogether.

The state and federal agencies chose to supplement the final EIS and continue efforts to make the road a reality. The state and federal agencies announced in September that they will begin that process.

The supplemental EIS will look into, among other things, an option to use existing Alaska Marine Highway Service in lieu of a building a new road. However, a press release from Gov. Sean Parnell gives the impression the state is determined to build a road.

“Governor Sean Parnell has directed the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to move the Juneau Access Improvements project toward construction,” the release read.

“The Juneau Access project is a critical infrastructure project for Juneau and Southeast Alaska. It’s time to move it ahead,” Parnell stated in that release.

DOT Director Reuben Yost said his agency and the federal government have asked HDR Inc. to complete the supplemental EIS along with some changes to the enjoined final EIS.

“There are a few changes on the ground,” Yost said. Some eagle’s nests and sea lion haul-outs have changed locations. And HDR will look and see if the size of vessels the Alaska Marine Highway System owns is appropriate, he said.

“The supplemental EIS will also address changes in applicable laws, regulations, and approvals,” according to the Juneau Access Project’s website.

HDR owns four locations in Alaska, including one in Juneau. The award-winning firm’s portfolio includes work on the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge and the Port Mann Bridge in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In addition to transportation infrastructure, the Omaha, Neb.-based firm has provided planning and conceptual design, among other services, for projects such as the Beijing International Medical Center in Lucheng City, Tongzhou District of China.

Supplementing and updating the EIS is expected to take about two years — with a draft release in late 2012 and a final release planned for mid-2013. The supplement will still have to go through the same process as the original EIS — a draft supplemental EIS, public comments, and a final EIS addressing the preferred alternative, Yost said. If the state has a preferred alternative they must reveal it in the draft EIS.

A newsletter describing the process will be distributed to all postal addresses in the project area as well as inserted into local newspapers, according to the Juneau Access Project website.

The National Environmental Policy Act’s section 102(2)(C) requires the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement for proposed major federal action “significantly affecting the quality of the human environment”. An EIS is a tool for decision making. It describes positive and negative effects of such an action and lists alternatives.

“Nothing can happen on the project until that is remedied,” Yost said.

Yost said the state will continue to pursue the road due to its finding that Juneau, Skagway and Haines have unfulfilled traveler needs.

“The state’s position is that the problem hasn’t gone away, so we still need to deal with that problem,” Yost said. He said he doesn’t know if there has been a conversation between federal government and state about not doing the project.

The state’s preferred project would shorten travel time between Juneau and the upper Lynn Canal communities of Haines and Skagway by building a 50.8-mile road from the end of the existing Juneau road system to the mouth of the Katzahin River, from where a new ferry terminal would be built to connect to the two nearby cities.

Yost said the new terminal would be serviced by multiple ferries each traveling the dozen or so miles to Haines and Skagway several times a day. Eight round-trip sailings to Haines each day with the Skagway route running six short shuttle runs, Yost said.

Even with a new terminal up north, there is no risk that Juneau would lose its Auke Bay terminal, Yost said. Ferry service from the south would not change. Routs to and from Pelican, Angoon, Hoonah Gustavus, Sitka and Petersburg would turn around in Auke Bay, Yost said. However, northbound traffic would leave from Katzahin River. There would be little or no ferry traffic north out of Auke Bay.

Part of the supplemental EIS will cover changes in costs since the last estimate came out in 2009. The estimate for the state’s preferred alternative came to $470 million.

“I don’t think it is going to change much,” Yost said. He said he expected a small rise due to inflation and other factors.

In the last several years “costs were going up, then dropped and are now leveled or are rising slowly,” Yost said. Fuel costs and employee wages have gone up.

The McDowell Group listed the road’s potential benefits to Juneau in the final EIS. The road would provide new construction jobs for three to five years, open up new access to Kensington Mine and potential mines along the route, business and recreational travel and lower costs for fishermen to ship fish, according to the firm.

Proponents of the road are organized under the banner of Citizens Pro Road. The group said it is disappointed in the governor’s decision, but they encourage their members to stay involved.

“CPR knows it is even more important than ever that you stay involved throughout the State supplemental EIS process by letting the state know you support the road alternative,” the group’s website states. The website points to mechanical troubles with AMHS fast ferries and ongoing mechanical issues with other AMHS ferries as reasons to build “a road — now.”

The pro road group in August asked the state to appeal the Circuit Court’s decision.

“We have been working through the process with five Alaska governors — going back to Gov. Walter Hickel’s administration — and after completing literally thousands of hours of public testimony, environmental assessments, and energy and economic impact studies,” said Sandy Williams, vice chair of Citizens Pro Road, stated in a press release. “The state’s preferred alternative to build a road from Juneau to Haines and Skagway with a ferry terminal at Katzehin, is sound, correct, and desperately needed.”

Building the road would provide Juneau with both short term and long term economic benefits that would help sustain the community well into the future, Citizens Pro Road member Paulette Simpson said.

“The state and federal agencies looked at a wide variety of alternatives to improve transportation in the region,” she said. “For SEACC and the other outside environmental groups to appeal the record of decision in the courts at the 11th hour with a trumped up alternative sets a bad precedent for all of the other work the state is doing in full faith to align itself with federal and state policy,” Simpson said.

The lawsuit that eventually resulted in the project’s injunction began shortly after the federal government released a Final Environmental Impact Statement in April 2006. The United States Forest Service and the Federal Highway Administration were in charge of the FEIS.

In August of that year, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, or SEACC, and five other plaintiffs filed a complaint in U.S. District Court.

“The complaint alleges the USFS failed to comply with the National Forest Management Act and (Federal Highway Adminisitration) failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, the Bald Eagle Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act,” according to the Juneau Access Project’s website.

The district court sided with the plaintiffs and ruled the state and federal EIS “did not include an alternative that would improve transportation in Lynn Canal with existing assets,” according to the Juneau Access Project website, the existing assets being those of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

“We’re hopeful the governor will take a fresh and fair look at all the options for transportation in upper Lynn Canal, including improvements to the ferry system,” said Dan Lesh, SEACC communications and sustainability director. “SEACC and others have identified a number of flaws in the state’s previous study for the road, including what we saw as inaccurate traffic and demand forecasts, among other issues,” he said.

Lesh said SEACC will follow the process and submit comments when the time comes.

SEACC will address “the flaws we identified will help ensure that taxpayer money is spent wisely,” Lesh said.

The push to build new Alaska Class Ferries is encouraging, Lesh said.

“The governor has been supportive of building new Alaska Class Ferries, including in the capital budget he recently submitted to the Legislature,” Lesh said.

Though officially not part of the Juneau Access Road project, Alaska’s DOT has begun upgrade construction that would extend the road.

Winter has put construction on hold on a project to widen and improve a three-mile stretch at the end of Glacier Highway out to Berners Bay. Though opponents of the Road have considered the construction as part of the project, Judge John Sedgwick, the same judge that upheld the injunction, found that the two projects were not connected, according to Yost.

“We sent a motion to the judge and the judge ruled that the project is not associated with the (Juneau Access Road) project,” Yost said. “It had its own EIS that the Forest Service did and had a different purpose. The reason we went back to that judge because, we wanted to make sure that the judge didn’t have a problem. We didn’t want to wait until we started to find out the judge saw it as the same project or found us in contempt,” he said.

Yost said the three miles of construction would not have much of an effect on the overall cost of the Access Road project.

“With numbers as big as the JAR, saving a couple million on the construction ... will drop those costs a little bit, but not much,” Yost said.

• Contact reporter Russell stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com

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