Empire Editorial: Give us the whole road

If you’re going to build a road out of Juneau, make it a whole road.

 

We’re talking about an asphalt and concrete highway that connects to another community; it doesn’t matter if it’s Skagway or Haines.

As the bumper sticker says, “Ferries go all the way.” If the Alaska Department of Transportation suggests an alternative to ferry travel, it should offer a complete solution.

For the past few months, the Empire has been reading and dissecting the DOT’s draft supplemental environmental impact statement, the latest and most complete public document on a road out of Juneau.

We have concluded that extending Glacier Highway to another ferry terminal, whether it’s at the Katzehin River (Option 2B), Sawmill Cove or William Henry Bay (Option 3) doesn’t make fiscal, environmental or any other kind of sense.

We already have a road that accomplishes what every Juneau Access alternative is attempting: It’s called Glacier Highway and it leads to the Auke Bay Ferry Terminal.

The Alaska Department of Transportation has its heart set on Option 2B, which would extend Glacier Highway to a new ferry terminal at the Katzehin River. From there, day ferries would take passengers and vehicles to Skagway and Haines, and vice-versa. Our problem with Option 2B is that it’s only three-quarters of a plan. We’re only getting three-quarters of a road.

We suspect we know why that’s the case.

In 2006, state plans for a direct highway to Skagway — then called Option 2 — were stopped by the National Park Service. The NPS pointed to a section of federal highway law that says federal money cannot be used to build a road into a national landmark if a viable alternative exists.

The state had Option 2B, so it abandoned the direct road. For now.

If Option 2B is built (with the federal government footing 90 percent of the bill), we suspect the state will return to the drawing board in a few years and try to gain support for the second half of the road — this time built with state money in order to avoid National Park Service objections.

There will be lawsuits, arguments, another environmental impact statement, and Juneau will have something to talk about for the next 25 years before the road, the real road, is built.

That’s the strategy of people who pull Band-Aids off slowly. It doesn’t take into account the fact that by the time this road is done, everyone will be sick of talking about it. When DOT comes back and asks Juneau if it’s interested in the second half of the project, they shouldn’t be surprised when the city tells DOT to jump off an Alaska-class ferry.

There are those who believe the Alaska Marine Highway is the same as an asphalt one, so why do we need a road highway? We’d argue that Southeast has an aerial highway between Alaska Airlines, Delta, Alaska Seaplanes, Wings of Alaska and charter flights. So, why even have a marine highway if everyone can fly?

No, this argument doesn’t hold a lot of water, and neither does the one that Juneau doesn’t need a road because it has ferries.

The difference is capacity: A highway allows Juneau room to grow. The Marine Highway does not.

If a direct highway isn’t in the cards, Option 3, a highway on the west side of Lynn Canal, makes more sense than Option 2B — but only slightly more.

Having ferries cross Berners Bay daily from new ferry terminals at Sawmill Cove and William Henry Bay is a bad idea. We’d rather see a route that took passengers from the existing Auke Bay terminal across to William Henry Bay. It will cost more time, but it will involve less in the way of capital expenses. Furthermore, a road on the west side of Lynn Canal will cross fewer avalanche paths and be less environmentally damaging than a partial road on the east side.

Not many people publicly supported the state’s plan during the three open forums held in Juneau, Skagway and Haines. We think that might be because the state is pitching shorter ferry rides, not full access.

If the state was more up front about its plan to eventually complete a road to Skagway, we believe public opinion would be different.

We’ll pass on Option 2B. It’s not worth the nearly $600 million the road would cost. If the state had a plan to take the east-side road all the way to Skagway, we would feel differently — even if that project had a billion-dollar price tag.

Juneau needs a road, and enough people support the effort to make it worthwhile. Folks at DOT should reveal their full plans before Option 2B is built, because if there are no other plans and Southeast Alaskans will have no choice but to be ferry-bound one way or another, residents need to know before money is spent and ground broken.

Juneau has waited for a road for more than 100 years — let’s be the generation who finally gets it done.

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