Opinion: DOT's highways to nowhere

“To nowhere.”

That’s the politically charged label being harnessed to the Juneau Access Project by opponents of the road up Lynn Canal. Even though a ferry terminal across from Haines isn’t nowhere, there are at least two past projects in Alaska that truly fit that storyline, and a short study of both suggests the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is a bureaucracy that tends to exaggerate highway needs and embellish its accomplishments to keep taxpayer dollars rolling in.

When it comes to road and bridge construction, one of the most egregious examples of waste is the Gravina Island Access project. It’s only accessible if you take a ferry to Ketchikan’s airport.

Completed in 2008, the 3.2 mile, gravel road was designed and built by Kiewit Pacific Co. for $25.7 million. It traverses a landscape that’s mostly muskeg and serves not a single business and few, if any, permanent residences. The road ends at the $360 million “Bridge to Nowhere” that will probably never be built.

What makes this project even more of an embarrassment is that it was selected for a Globe Award by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. Those are supposed to be for recognition of highway “improvement projects … that have contributed to environmental protection and mitigation.” And in nominating themselves for the award, Kiewit wrote that the project enhanced aesthetic values and public safety. Only engineers could imagine that replacing the natural landscape with a road protects the environment, improves its visual quality and reduces accidents.

Another project where DOT has poured money down the drain is the Copper River Highway out of Cordova. It’s a gravel road that runs along the Copper River Delta for about 40 miles beyond the city’s airport. It ends just after the historic Million Dollar Bridge. Built in 1910 to haul copper by rail from Kennicott to Cordova, it was converted to a highway bridge in 1958. One of the four steel truss spans collapsed during the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964. The road up the Copper River to Chitina, where it was supposed to connect to the state highway system, was never finished.

The only vehicle access to Cordova is via ferry, and like Juneau, about half the town doesn’t want to see the road built. That didn’t stop the DOT from trying to reconstruct it.

In 1991, the state spent almost $700,000 on a section that’s never been open to vehicle traffic. They called it maintenance. It was done without legislative approval and without the permits required by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In 2005, the Million Dollar Bridge was repaired at a cost of $17 million. DOT justified the expense by claiming it was cheaper than demolishing the structure. That’s hard to believe, especially considering that six years later they sought another $11.5 million for seismic upgrades.

In 2011, Copper River floods forced DOT to close Bridge 339 about 12 miles before the end of road. Now the Million Dollar Bridge is in the middle of nowhere, and replacing Bridge 339 will cost $29 million. All this for a road that’s closed half the year and offers little more than opportunities for glacier viewing, fishing, hunting and camping.

It may well have been that DOT elected to repair the Million Dollar Bridge because removing it would have likely ended all hopes of ever building the road to Chitina. From that perspective it might be considered a down payment on future construction, just like the Gravina Access was for Ketchikan’s “Bridge to Nowhere.”

The Juneau Access road is no different. DOT has already spent $30 million reconstructing and extending the highway from Eagle Beach to Cascade Point.

Considering the natural hazards along the route, a road up Lynn Canal could turn into a multimillion-dollar headache like the Copper River Highway. Or, if the Federal Highway Administration refuses to fund it, we’ll have nothing more than a dead end like the Gravina Island road.

We can be sure of two things. Building it won’t protect the environment, enhance aesthetics or improve public safety. And AKDOTPF will continue to exaggerate its benefits because it needs taxpayer cash to sustain its bureaucratic empire.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.


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