State officials are asking for the public’s input on an update to the massive Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan that aims to identify transportation needs and offer suggested improvements for those needs over the next 20 years.
Some of the highlights of the proposed plan as it currently stands include building a 45-mile road between Kake and Petersburg, building a road connecting Juneau to a ferry terminal just outside of Haines and constructing an airport in Angoon.
The state is planning to publish a final copy of the plan this fall, so feedback must be submitted by Aug. 30. The draft plan released this week is the result of several years of data collection and public meetings.
“This draft of the plan describes the preferred alternative that includes features of the variety of concepts we considered in the scoping process and presented (during) our public meetings,” Department of Transportation Regional Planning Chief Andy Hughes wrote in a public letter to Alaskans about the plan. “It explains the actions that should be taken to ensure we have a multi-modal transportation system that meets the needs of the region’s people and economy.”
Along with the aforementioned priorities, the 2014 update to the SATP includes an emphasis on maintaining existing Alaska Marine Highway Routes, retiring between one and three of the mainline ferries depending on travel demands and budget constraints, replacing ferries on a regular schedule and, finally, building a road from Sitka to Warm Spring Bay where a new ferry terminal would be constructed.
A hotly contested item at any coffeehouse or workplace around Juneau, the proposed road that would connect Juneau to the main highway system via a short shuttle ferry near Haines is the first priority listed under the plan’s “Highway Recommendations” section.
The route is being called the “East Lynn Canal Highway,” and it received a $35-million infusion from the 2014 Legislature as part of the capital budget.
“This extension of Glacier Highway addresses a high traffic volume corridor with a seasonal demand peak that can be most economically served by a road connection,” the SATP states. The same paragraph goes on to state, “The road will enable as much as a tenfold increase in travel in and out of Juneau thus improving access between the Capital City, the Yukon and Interior Alaska.”
But many around the state don’t see the project as economically beneficial. Advocate groups, along with the cities of Haines and Skagway, and a significant portion of Southeast residents are opposed to the project. Still, it maintains the support of Juneau area Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, and local Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau.
The SATP includes a list of five points that indicate the road is needed. They are:
• Provide the capacity to meet transportation demand in the corridor,
• Provide flexibility and improve opportunity for travel,
• Reduce travel times between the communities,
• Reduce State costs for transportation in the corridor and,
• Reduce user costs for transportation in the corridor.
State officials are currently awaiting a supplemental environmental impact statement to proceed after a judge ordered the additional review as a result of a successful legal challenge to the development.
Flying into Angoon
The top aviation recommendation listed in the SATP is for the design and construction of an airfield in Angoon. The goal is to provide better access to emergency care and supplies to the residents of Angoon, while also serving as an emergency stopping point for planes flying in the area that may run into inclement weather or mechanical problems.
Angoon is the largest community in the state without a land airport, the draft states.
According to the SATP, the concept was first proposed in 2007, and work began on a environmental impact statement that year. A draft of that EIS is expected sometime this summer, and the next step in the federal approval process — a Record of Decision — could come by the end of the year. That would allow the design and construction of the project to take place in 2015 and 2016, but there are currently no estimates on when it might be completed.
“The Angoon airport will improve air travel safety, reliability and frequency; provide for emergency medical transportation needs; better meet current travel needs and latent travel demand; reduce the community’s isolation; provide improved access to the Admiralty Island National Monument; and support economic development by providing opportunities for employment and growth,” according to the SATP.
Officials have completed the process for selecting a preferred site.
A Kake-Petersburg connection?
The recipient of a $40-million nod of support from the Legislature in 2012, a proposed 45-mile road from Kake to Petersburg is also one of the top recommendations in the SATP.
The project would require constructing 22 miles of new, single-lane and unpaved road while improving 23 miles of existing logging roads that would connect Kake to a ferry connection to take travellers across the Wrangell Narrows similar to the system employed at the Ketchikan airport which operates several times daily.
The City of Kake has passed a resolution in support of the project.
“A road connection to Petersburg would allow access to many of the needed goods and services and could be accomplished with a day trip at significantly reduced cost. Petersburg is expected to benefit from increased business,” the SATP states.
It also notes that currently Kake residents are forced to travel by air or sea to Sitka or Juneau for supplies or needed services — ventures that often require overnight stays and can be pricey.
The project is not as far along as the Juneau Access and Angoon airport projects. An environmental impact statement is needed and being worked on, but the process could take up to three years, which would mean a final approval from the federal government is not expected before early 2016.
Juneau democratic Rep. Sam Kito III’s district includes Petersburg, but not Kake. Kito is skeptical about the DOT building a new road between the two cities when the department already has a large maintenance commitment. He raised the same concerns about the Juneau Access project.
“DOT is having issues with having money to adequately maintain the roads we have currently, and adding new roads is going to put even more burden on a steady or declining maintenance budget,” Kito said. He added that the Kake-Petersburg road does not have the same potential benefit as the Juneau road in regard to eliminating the need for a ferry route.
“There’s definitely issues with building a road where you don’t have a growing economy to support the need for a road,” Kito told the Empire.
Kito said there are likely economic benefits for a separate project between Kake and Petersburg that aims to provide lower-cost electricity to Kake residents.