Ben Brown in a June 3 My Turn put Mayor Bill Overstreet Park and the Juneau Access proposal on the same level of community controversy/acceptance. Brown suggested that since he adapted his point of view on the once controversial whale project those who oppose the road to the Katzehin River should now do the same. He makes this leap of connection by assuming those in opposition are either blind to economic realities or merely opposing out of stubbornness. After all, if he can be magnanimous and admit to being wrong about one project so can those in opposition to the road.
This simplistic equation is pure fallacy. It is not people in opposition that are blind to economic realities, it is those who have a tendency to jump on the “all roads are good” bandwagon who are blind. Nowhere in Brown’s column is there any mention of a cost-benefit analysis done by the McDowell Group’s Jim Calvin and Juneau economic consultant Milt Barker that shows the road, from an economic standpoint, makes no sense.
When choosing between alternative highway projects, the standard is to dismiss projects with benefit-to-cost ratios less than 1.0, because it doesn’t make sense to invest in projects when the costs outweigh the benefits. According to the analysis contained in DOT’s own environmental documents, the proposed Juneau road doesn’t even come close, with a benefit-to-cost ratio of 0.28.
It’s not surprising that Brown fails to overlook this key economic finding as it’s buried behind 1,421 pages of other material in the Juneau Access draft supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. It was local economic consultant Greg Erickson that first highlighted this study in a 2014 My Turn entitled “Road Makes No Economic Sense.”
“I was stunned by the magnitude of the net benefit shortfall,” said Erickson. “I suspect Juneau’s build-the-road-now boosters will be stunned, too. The Calvin-Barker report is the first rigorous cost-benefit analysis in the 20 years since DOT began studying the proposed road.” In essence the only economic analysis that uses a widely accepted methodology shows the road as an economic loser when compared to the existing ferries.
I am not blind to this economic reality, nor am I blind to the knowledge that the road crosses 43 avalanche paths, 10 of which are classified especially dangerous making it likely that there will be extended closures in winter. When wait times for ferries are included it will actually take longer to travel between Juneau and Haines under DOT’s proposed plan as compared with travel aboard the existing fast ferry. These are facts that should not be brushed aside in the simple assumption that all roads lead to economic development.
It is not blindness to reality, nor is it stubbornness that keeps me and other road opponents skeptical. If the facts were otherwise and the project truly viable then why isn’t the road extension a central part of Juneau’s approved Economic Development Plan? It’s because the community came together and said let’s focus on our strengths and what’s known to be viable strategies for economic development. Yes, there is mention of the road to Katzehin River as part of the Infrastructure section but the road is absent from the list of actions. Rather the focus under accelerate infrastructure is on North Douglas, freight and aviation-related improvements. If the road is so assuredly viable as Brown declares then why isn’t it at least an action item? Instead the map for economic development lies in eight distinct initiatives, from enhance essential infrastructure to revitalize downtown; from growing the senior economy to promoting affordable housing.
Like the economic analysis cited above, the Juneau Economic Development Plan often gets overlooked. But now as the campaign season starts up it’s my hope that we will have a discussion of the issues based on facts and that these reports will matter once again.
• Kate Troll is a former Juneau Assembly member with 22 years experience in climate and energy, fisheries and coastal management policy. She is the author of “The Great Unconformity: Reflections on Hope in an Imperiled World.”