The state’s project manager for Juneau Access — the proposed road north out of Juneau — is leaving the Department of Transportation, effective today.
An internal memo dated Feb. 10 stated that Gary Hogins, a 30-year veteran of the department, will be taking over the project from Mike Vigue, who accepted a position with the Federal Highway Administration in Juneau.
There was no mention of the pending leadership change at a Thursday joint meeting of the House and Senate transportation committees, which gathered to discuss the Juneau project and a proposed road to Ambler in northwest Alaska.
Members of Juneau’s Government Hill delegation were unaware of the change, but Sen. Dennis Egan, a long-time supporter of the road, isn’t worried about any problems.
“I don’t think it’s going to affect the project at all,” said Egan, D-Juneau. “There’s been a lot of project designers in charge of this thing over the last 40 years.”
After delivering his last presentation to the joint committee Thursday, Vigue told the Empire his decision to leave the DOT was unrelated to his involvement with the project.
During his presentation, Vigue said building the road would let more than 1,300 cars per day travel between Haines and Juneau. Now, only 71 cars per day can use that route, a figure determined by ferry service.
If the road were built, the long ferry ride from Haines to Juneau would be replaced by a short three-mile hop across Lynn Canal.
“The current Lynn Canal transportation system is the largest bottleneck in the state,” Vigue read from a presentation slide. “It deserves a better and more efficient alternative.”
Jeff Ottesen, program development director for the DOT, told lawmakers the road makes economic sense — despite a price tag estimated at around $500 million — because of the high cost of providing ferry service in the area. Over the next 50 years, the cost of building and operating one mainline ferry — after subtracting revenue gained from ferry riders — is about $1.42 billion, Ottesen told the committee.
The marine highway system takes up about half of the department’s budget despite transporting fewer than 1 percent of those commuting through the state, he added.
“When Gov. Bill Egan initiated the ferry system in 1962, it was never meant to provide a permanent solution to transportation in Southeast Alaska,” said Sandy Williams of Citizens Pro Road.
But the road is hardly a slam dunk as both public opposition and legal challenges aim to stop the project.
“I’d much rather spend a half-billion dollars — and half-billion is a very generous cost estimate — on repairing infrastructure we already have, or harbors or roads where there’s more of an obvious demand and benefit,” said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka.
The City and Borough of Juneau offered its support for the project in a letter to the committee, but the Haines Borough sent a letter opposing the project.
Haines prefers the road be built on the west side of Lynn Canal to avoid the dangers of numerous avalanche zones that line the proposed route.
One of the project’s biggest opponents, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, called the project a “flawed and destructive ‘Road to Nowhere’” in a letter sent to the committee. SEACC is the organization that helped delay the project eight years ago.
In 2006, a SEACC-backed lawsuit successfully halted the project. The state appealed the initial ruling, but the appeal was denied in 2011. The state then began working to satisfy the judge’s concerns about the state’s work, and that work is expected to conclude this year.
If the state gets a green light from the courts and federal approval by mid to late August, construction could begin as soon as this September. The Alaska Department of Transportation is expecting about six years of construction, Vigue told the Empire previously.