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A sensible Juneau road proposal rejected

Posted: July 9, 2011 - 9:55pm

The struggle to connect Alaska’s Capital City to the North American road system has been underway for decades. Proposals to link Juneau with the highway grid have included all possible extremes — from a highway up the west side of Lynn Canal, to routes over the mountains into British Columbia to the one that was sensibly arrived at several years ago by the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF) as the best option.

The Lynn Canal Highway would travel up the east side of the main waterway north of Juneau to a point on the Katzeheen River, where a ferry would take cars, their drivers, and walk-on passengers to either Skagway or Haines. This route was chosen after years and years of studies, public testimony, and careful consideration of the relative costs and benefits of all alternatives. The formal document that chose this route was the Record of Decision issued by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) in April of 2006, and two months later the necessary permits were issued.

Despite the excruciatingly lengthy and meticulous process undertaken to arrive at the point of beginning work on the Lynn Canal Highway, all along some have continued to argue that this route isn’t the right one. These critics say that it doesn’t make sense to build a highway north to a ferry terminal, and I agree that it is not the ideal plan. The ideal plan would be to build the road right on through into Skagway, so drivers could easily come and go from Juneau without having to bother with even a short ferry ride.

Unfortunately, residents of Skagway who are adamantly opposed to the idea of a road to Juneau allied with other die-hard opponents of ground access to the Capital City, and used the recreational designation of small amount of land south of Skagway to frustrate the inclusion of a highway’s passage across this acreage in the plan that stands before us today. I have a hard time believing that most who say they just don’t support a Lynn Canal Highway that runs north to Katzeheen don’t want any road connecting Juneau to the rest of the world, anywhere, anyhow, or at any time in the future. They can’t use this argument in legal briefings, but it’s what informs their actions and constitutes their true agenda.

The forces that want Juneau to remain eternally unconnected to these communities that are just not that far away filed a federal lawsuit to stop work on the Juneau Access Project in the U.S. District Court for Alaska. Their argument was primarily procedural, that DOT&PF and the FHA ought to have more thoroughly considered the possibility of the alternative of not building the highway, and instead just allocating more Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHs) ferries to shuttle Alaskans and other travelers up and down Lynn Canal. Sadly, the District Court bought this flawed argument; perhaps in the context of the complex web of federal legal requirements for this project the ruling could make some shred of sense. But in the cold hard light of day and simply using one’s common sense, it was the wrong decision, because DOT&PF and the FHA did consider all the alternatives fully and completely.

The only way to allocate more ferries to Lynn Canal routes would be to take them away from the rest of the Alaska Marine Highway System route-map. More ships and sailings to allow for more frequent and convenient access to Juneau, Haines, and Skagway would mean fewer sailings to other communities elsewhere. These might be Valdez, or Unalaska, or Petersburg, but in order to make Juneau more accessible, some other towns are going to have to sacrifice the use of big blue boats if we’re to have more.

The state appealed the district court ruling to the 9th Circuit, and unfortunately two of the three judges that heard the appeal decided to uphold the lower court. Once again, the false argument that enough effort was not put into picking the present Lynn Canal route carried the day. It must be extremely frustrating for DOT&PF that its extraordinary efforts are rejected for not being adequate, but the state isn’t giving up.

In June, Alaska’s Attorney General formally petitioned for review of the erroneous decision of the three-judge panel by the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeal. The 9th Circuit is widely known as the most frequently reversed appellate court in the nation, and this is very much an instance where it was mistaken once again. The state’s Petition for Panel Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc Review is extremely well-written and ought to convince any reasonable person that more than enough consideration and description of non-construction alternatives took place to satisfy every applicable federal law. If the state doesn’t get the full 9th Circuit to make the right choice, I trust that the matter will eventually will go the U.S. Supreme Court, where one can only hope logic will prevail.

• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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