Opinion: Measuring 'the road's' value without subsidies

Welcome back to the great road debate. This time, it’s no longer about keeping the capital in Juneau. That issue has been dormant for more than a decade, leaving supporters of a road to Haines arguing solely on the grounds of long-term economic savings. What they won’t say is whether or not they’d support it without the massive subsidy of federal taxpayer dollars.

Officials at the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities say the Juneau Access project fulfills the agency’s mission of connecting people and communities. That’s part of the function of roads everywhere, but few highways, if any, have been built for that reason alone. The Interstate Highway System, which moves a quarter of all vehicle traffic today, was conceived as a network for rapid military mobilization. Interstates have become the primary commuter routes between suburbs and cities as well as a main artery for everyday commerce.

The Juneau Access highway won’t serve any of those functions. Even so, AKDOTPF estimates that almost 1,500 vehicles a day could use the road. Who are these likely users?

I can’t imagine many people will routinely travel from Haines or Skagway just to shop at Costco, Walmart or Fred Meyer. Nor do I think there’ll be a significant increase in Juneauites traveling all the way to Whitehorse, Fairbanks or Anchorage. It’s not going to become the Lynn Canal commuter corridor. Trucking won’t replace tugs and barges for delivering essential goods and general merchandise to Juneau. And I wouldn’t expect a flood of tourist-driven RVs either.

So aside from some Kensington Mine workers who may drive a quarter of the road back and forth to town, the only other highway purpose seems to be seasonal recreational access to relatively untouched areas of the Tongass National Forest. And as a state that’s always disparaging our federal government for spending taxpayer money on the social welfare of other people, there’s a bit of hypocrisy building a half-billion-dollar highway for the luxury of driving to new playgrounds.

We also have to recognize that Alaskans can’t choose to put money slated for this project toward other needs like schools or social services. That’s because the vast majority is expected to come from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, including $30 million of the $35 million proposed in this year’s state budget. Those funds are essentially dedicated to roads.

The main source of revenue for the Trust Fund is the 18.4 cents per-gallon tax we pay at the gas pump. But a little more research into this reveals again just how much Alaskans prefer to spend other people’s money. At eight cents per gallon, our state motor fuel tax is the lowest in the country and only a quarter of the national average. Californians pay almost seven times as much as we do. That means we rely on federal funds for our roads more than anyone else.

It’s not as if the Highway Trust Fund itself is a solvent cash cow. Between 2008 and 2010, Congress had to recharge it with $35 billion from the general treasury. The situation isn’t much better today. That’s why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is calling for a 15-cent per gallon gas hike over three years. Just imagine the public outcry if President Obama signed such a tax increase.

Remember too that we Juneauites voted against taxing ourselves by increasing our sales tax to fund a new $50 million capitol building in 1993. And just four years ago we rejected doing the same for the proposed $80 million second crossing to Douglas Island. So how would this issue fare in a public vote that would essentially ask each taxpaying Juneauite to cough up $30,000 for building the road and two new day ferries?

If this is a valid argument against the road, opponents like me need to ask ourselves a similar question. How much more are we willing to pay for ferry fares between Juneau and Haines to eliminate the state subsidy we’re benefiting from right now? And increasing those ticket prices should be part of the analysis before our tax-anxious legislators reverse their normal meaning of overreach by siphoning off federal funds for the Juneau Access project.

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