DOT plans to finish 'The Road' by 2020

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct the full anticipated cost of the Juneau Access Project.

 

The Alaska Department of Transportation hopes to save money by spending money — $602 million on highway projects, including the Juneau Access Project, over the next 20 years.

Also known as the Lynn Canal Highway or simply “The Road,” the Juneau Access Project is the focus of the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, a draft of which was presented to a full room Wednesday night at Centennial Hall.

The plan outlines a 20-year schedule of maintenance on the region’s existing transportation infrastructure, as well as new additions.

Focusing on building the Road will cut costs for the system as a whole, Southeast Region planning chief Andy Hughes said in his presentation. Although expenses for Southeast’s roads will be 24 percent higher if the plan is carried out, ensuing changes to the Alaska Marine Highway System will cut ferry costs by 7 percent. Overall costs for the region’s DOT infrastructure, which also includes air transportation, will decrease by 3 percent through the plan, Hughes said in the presentation.

The Road, which will end at the Katzehin River, where drivers will board a ferry to Haines or Skagway, is set for completion in 2020. DOT estimates the highway will cost about $523 million. The Katzehin ferry terminal will cost an additional $20 million to build.

According to numbers provided by Hughes, the ferry system will need $718 million in refurbishments over the next 20 years. Costs to run the 10-ferry system were hovering around $140 million per year in 2012, while ridership has been steadily declining.

The Road will provide an “eight- to 10-fold opportunity to travel between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, and the continental road system,” Hughes said. “A more frequent opportunity to get out of town, so to speak.”

In the coming years, the three oldest ships in the ferry fleet will be either replaced or eliminated, DOT transportation planner Verne Skagerberg said at the meeting. This is another significant component of the 20-year plan.

One ferry will be replaced in 2017 by two 280-foot-long day boats to serve the Katzehin terminal. Another will be replaced by a new ferry; a third will be replaced if there is enough ridership and enough money, Skagerberg said. Over 20 years, DOT will invest $562.3 million in new ferry system projects.

Many audience members at the public meeting voiced skepticism about the “road-heavy” plan. They cited environmental and safety concerns. One person asked how the road is considered safer than ferries, which have been used for years without a casualty.

“The transportation plan seems road-heavy in a changing world,” Juneau resident Alpheus Bullard said, citing the region’s recent earthquakes.

Hughes responded that he believes the road will “provide more versatility” in a changing world.

Bill Leighty, of the Leighty Foundation, said he was concerned about the environment if car traffic  is expected to increase by eight- to 10-fold.

“Isn’t that the last thing we want to encourage? For people to drive more vehicles and burn more fuel?” he asked to audience applause.

Hughes said many of the audience’s questions will be answered by the Juneau Access Project’s environmental impact study, which is set to be released later this year. 

The estimated cost of the entire SATP is about $2.6 billion, according to DOT numbers. The current draft of the plan can be found online at dot.alaska.gov/sereg/projects/satp/index.shtml. Public comment on the draft is open through Sept. 30.

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