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Mayors split on Juneau Access Road at Skagway summit

4 communities represented at meeting

Posted: April 26, 2013 - 10:01pm  |  Updated: April 28, 2013 - 1:20am
Rep. Beth Kerttula and Sen. Dennis Egan listen to the Northern Lynn Canal Neighbors Summit in Skagway from Kerttula's Capitol office on Friday. The Summit includes the borough assemblies of Juneau, Haines and Skagway, as well as the Whitehorse City Council.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Rep. Beth Kerttula and Sen. Dennis Egan listen to the Northern Lynn Canal Neighbors Summit in Skagway from Kerttula's Capitol office on Friday. The Summit includes the borough assemblies of Juneau, Haines and Skagway, as well as the Whitehorse City Council.

Officials from the City and Borough of Juneau, Municipality of Skagway Borough and Haines Borough met in Skagway Friday for a summit on regional cooperation, but devoted much of their time to discussing a subject on which they emphatically do not agree.

Discussion of the Juneau Access Road, a proposed extension of Juneau’s road system north to Katzehin, consumed much of Friday afternoon’s Northern Lynn Canal Neighbors Summit at Skagway City Hall, with Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford defending the project and assembly members from Haines and Skagway criticizing it.

It was Haines Mayor Stephanie Scott who first dipped a toe into the controversy over “the Road,” as the project is frequently called. She referred to the project during a discussion on the Alaska Marine Highway System, which serves Juneau, Haines and Skagway.

“The reason we have to focus on the ferry system now is because that is what’s going to be presented to us,” Scott said. “The idea of a road link is still out there, and … that may happen too. But what we’re going to have today, tomorrow and in the next 10 years are the ferries. So we need to make sure that that system is intact, efficient and viable.”

Juneau Assemblymember Carlton Smith said officials should “look at the numbers and how we can connect” residents of Upper Lynn Canal communities.

Scott suggested that, based on her conversations with Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, it would be best for the region’s interests if communities could “speak in one voice.”

“I agree with you, we need to efficiently connect the (36,000) people here on that highway,” said Scott, referring to AMHS service on Lynn Canal. “If we can put aside, for right now, the idea of a Road — and am I misunderstanding in the sense that if we have a good ferry system, we’ll never have a Road? Is that the tension? And if that’s the problem, let’s put that to rest. I don’t think that would be the outcome.”

Both sides are entrenched in their positions either in support of the Road or against it, Sanford argued.

“I think that we’ve basically made up our minds already,” Sanford said. “I think we’ve pretty well worn out all the different paths and all the different ways of getting either a road or better ferry service within our Southeast region.”

Juneau, as noted by its state Rep. Beth Kerttula, who participated in the meeting by telephone, is split on support for the Road. Sanford was elected last year after campaigning on a platform that included support for the project.

The current plan for the Juneau Access Road would see the capital city’s road system extended up to a proposed shuttle ferry terminal at the mouth of the Katzehin River, just across Lynn Canal from Haines.

Previous plans called for the Road to link Juneau and Skagway directly, with some alternative proposals suggesting it could cross Lynn Canal instead and connect Juneau and Haines.

“That corridor isn’t safe,” said Skagway Assembly Member Mike Korsmo of the proposed alignment up the east side of Lynn Canal, which would situate the highway between the water on one side and high mountains on the other. “I don’t want my kids driving that road. … It scares the crap out of me.”

The moniker of “Juneau Access” that is used by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities was itself a subject of disagreement.

“Why don’t we call it ‘Lynn Canal Access’ instead of ‘Juneau Access?’” asked Skagway Mayor Stan Selmer. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense that we’re here trying to lock arms and walk through the wall of fire when it’s called ‘Juneau Access.’ That’s why I have it on (the agenda) as ‘Highway to Katzehin.’”

Sanford said he associates the name of the project with opportunity for the region.

“When I say ‘Juneau Access,’ I see Southeast communities being better suited to economic development across the board,” Sanford said. “I just see the Road as a possibility to do all those different things that we want to do at a cheaper price than the way we’re doing it right now.”

With time in the three-hour bloc allotted for the meeting running short, former Skagway Mayor Tim Bourcy suggested the officials work to find common ground rather than focusing on their disagreement over the Road.

“What I get out of this meeting is you all feel strongly about (transportation issues),” said Bourcy. “I guess my recommendation with regard to that is try to find common ground that we can have and find the things that we can work on and let’s work on those positive things.”

Participants at the summit also discussed less contentious topics, such as their shared dislike of the current proposal for the Alaska-class ferry. The DOT&PF plans to construct two ships of the new class as “day boats” to serve Upper Lynn Canal communities, but a proposed design feature — a partially open stern that state officials say will save about $2 million per vessel — has met with widespread scorn.

“What do you mean, open deck in the middle of Lynn Canal in the winter?” Sanford exclaimed. “I mean, I don’t think that works for any of us.”

Selmer agreed, saying that high waves under certain conditions in Upper Lynn Canal make an open-deck design unrealistic, especially if the ship has to turn around.

Both Sanford and Selmer expressed optimism that the DOT&PF will address their concerns.

A follow-up summit is tentatively set for November in Haines.

The Yukon territorial capital of Whitehorse was a fourth partner in the summit, although only one person from its city government participated in the meeting. Deputy Mayor Kirk Cameron called into the meeting, blaming a road closure near Carcross, Yukon, for his inability to attend the summit in person.

“If only we had a ferry from here to Skagway, it would be so much easier, I suspect,” Cameron joked.

Cameron said Whitehorse has social and economic ties to Juneau, Haines and Skagway, mentioning the sister city relationship between Juneau and Whitehorse among them.

“For many, many reasons, I think there will remain strong ties between what we do here in Whitehorse and in the Yukon and the ports in Alaska,” said Cameron. “So I very much value this relationship.”

The municipal governments of Juneau and Whitehorse could hold a joint session this fall for the first time in years, Cameron suggested.

Kerttula and fellow Juneau Rep. Cathy Muñoz, who was in Skagway for the summit, echoed the municipal officials’ sentiments on regional cooperation.

“We have so much in common,” Muñoz said. “I think we have so much more in common than we have that separates us.”

As mayor of the host community for the summit, Selmer had the final word.

“I have always said that I would rather stick a toothpick under my fingernail than bite my tongue. I didn’t have to do it today,” said Selmer. “And I was very apprehensive about this meeting at times, and it was weighing on me, but I think that we’ve demonstrated that Skagway, Haines, Juneau and Whitehorse are all, at least, commonly geographically connected, and there’s nothing we can do about that.”

Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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