A road out of Juneau may break ground this fall with an infusion of new funding.
Republican Gov. Sean Parnell’s capital budget includes $35 million for the Juneau Access Project, and a Senate Finance Committee co-chairman said Tuesday that the request likely will be granted.
“I think the governor’s request for the (Juneau Access Project) will stand in the budget,” said Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage. “The road offers another alternative to the folks down here, so the road’s got merit. It’s just very expensive.”
As planned, the road will extend Glacier Highway 50 miles north, to a spot about three miles across the Lynn Canal from Haines.
“We’re trying to increase the availability of travel for the public, and we’re trying to reduce the cost,” said Mike Vigue, the Juneau Access Project manager for the Department of Transportation.
The project has the support of Juneau’s two delegates to the Legislature. Juneau’s second House seat remains vacant.
“As the capital city, it’s very important we continue to improve access to the capitol,” Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, said. “And there are additional benefits to increasing commerce and recreation and increased connection to our neighbors to the north.”
The proposed $35 million allocation is not enough to complete the road. The most recent estimates put the cost of constructing the road at $523 million, and about $28 million has been spent so far on environmental preparation work, Vigue said. In total, the state and federal government will have allocated more than $214.5 million toward the project — assuming the Legislature approves Parnell’s budget.
The $35 million (a figure that includes $30 million in federal pass-through funding) is enough to build enough road to reach the Kensington gold mine, which is a “very laudable goal to improve safety and access” for the people working at the mine, Muñoz said.
“It would help improve economic vitality in Juneau and throughout the region,” she said.
The project has bigger hurdles to clear than Legislative floor votes and a Parnell signature of approval.
One of the project’s biggest opponents is the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, which helped delay the project eight years ago.
In 2006, a SEACC-backed lawsuit successfully challenged the project. The state appealed the initial ruling, but the appeal was denied in 2011. An injunction stopped work on the road, and the state began work on a supplemental environmental impact statement in response to the injunction.
“When we go to the judge to get the injunction lifted, our expectation is that he will rule that we complied with his request and he will lift the injunction,” Vigue said.
Even if the state meets the judge’s concerns, it may not meet the concerns of all critics.
“There are numerous issues with trying to build this road,” said James Sullivan, the legislative organizer for SEACC. “They include environmental issues, safety concerns from going through 36 avalanche zones and sustainability issues like going along critical habitat areas for sea lions.”
He added that project has numerous other problems; namely, it’s a “step in the wrong direction” because it eliminates a public transportation option for Alaskans wanting to traverse the Lynn Canal without their vehicle.
“The state of Alaska has a revenue problem, and yet our list of mega-projects is exploding,” Sullivan said. At the same time, they’re talking about cutting funding to schools – none of this adds up.”
Even if the state gets a signed-and-sealed go-ahead from the federal government, that may not be the final decision on the project, Vigue added.
“Anyone that wants to and has the standing to can file a lawsuit within 150 days after the record of decision,” Vigue said.
If the injunction is lifted, and the state gets federal approval by mid-to-late August, construction could begin as soon as September. The Alaska Department of Transportation is expecting about six years of construction, Vigue said.
Sullivan says lawmakers would be making a premature decision by voting on the appropriation before the new environmental statement is released. “They’re being asked to spend millions of dollars up front when they don’t know what the road is going to look like, or what the final price tag is going to be,” he said.
Still, Muñoz is confident lawmakers won’t stop funding once the project gets rolling.
“As we continue to make progress and move forward, I think we will continue to support those efforts,” she said.