Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the speech given by DOT Southcoast Region Director Lance Mearig to the Chamber of Commerce. This article has been updated to reflect the change.
The Alaska Senate voted 15-4 to restore funding for the Juneau Access Project Tuesday as it approved a capital construction budget that sends $21.3 million toward the effort.
It is not yet clear what the move means for the project, which was canceled by Gov. Bill Walker in December 2016.
The money is not new spending; the Senate merely reversed a move it made last year to divert the money from Juneau Access to other transportation projects in Lynn Canal.
The Juneau Access reappropriation is a small but significant part of the $1.43 billion capital budget within Senate Bill 142. The budget is paid with $1.1 billion in federal money unlocked by $330 million in state cash. The budget must be approved by the House and Gov. Bill Walker to become effective.
Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River and the senator in charge of drafting the capital budget, said the Juneau Access change exists “mostly because of public testimony both last year and this year.”
Juneau Access was one of several major construction projects either paused or canceled by Gov. Bill Walker in response to the state’s fiscal crisis, and MacKinnon said senators believe that was a mistake. Other projects include the Knik Arm Bridge and the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project.
“The major projects that were paused are something that at least some members of the Senate believe could have helped Alaska’s economy at this particular point in our history, if we would have advanced those projects,” she said.
MacKinnon said her understanding is that the project is paused and can go forward if the governor allows, but it was not immediately clear whether the governor is prepared to change his mind. A spokesperson for the governor said the governor was busy Tuesday and not prepared to make a statement.
Walker announced in December 2016 that he would not authorize construction of a road north from Juneau to a new ferry terminal north of the Katzehein River.
That road and terminal were designed to shorten ferry travel time between Juneau and the northern Lynn Canal communities of Haines and Skagway, but the idea is not without opponents.
Since the route was selected in 2006, it has been the target of lawsuits, de-funding attempts and public debates about the utility of the road. Opponents have argued that the project, whose cost has been estimated at $574 million, is not worth the effort.
Plans called for the road to be funded principally by the federal government, which would pay more than 90 percent of its cost. At the time of the governor’s announcement, the Legislature had accumulated $47 million in an account intended to pay the state’s share of the project.
In July 2017, with the project apparently canceled, the Legislature approved a capital construction budget that sent $4.4 million of the project’s money to a school in rural northern Alaska. Another $21.3 million was diverted to transportation projects in the Lynn Canal area, while the remaining money stayed in the project’s account.
Aurah Landau, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Facilities, said department employees are working on an environmental impact statement for the Juneau Access Project.
Last week, KINY-AM reported that DOT Southcoast Region Director Lance Mearig, in an address to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, said DOT was continuing its work on an environmental impact statement for the project and would be ready to proceed if the governor changed his mind.
On Wednesday, DOT spokeswoman Aurah Landau told the Empire that account of the speech was inaccurate and Mearig told the Chamber that the impact statement “will wrap up the project and provide analysis should needs change and warrant the project in the future.” KINY has since corrected its article.
Under the department’s arrangement with the Federal Highway Administration, it must complete an environmental impact statement or repay millions in federal dollars already spent on the project. Completion is expected in August, and at that time, a final record of decision is expected.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2258.