My Turn: State must study Lynn Canal access again

Posted: Wednesday, January 02, 2002

Blessed with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it is now obvious the decision to remove the Lynn Canal access planning and study from the comprehensive Southeast Transportation Plan was a mistake. The plan for how to deal with access in the Lynn Canal corridor has essentially become orphaned and dormant.

Lynn Canal transportation is critical to the entire Southeast region, not just the cities and villages of northern Southeast Alaska. Allowing the planning process for Lynn Canal to remain dormant will work to the detriment of all the communities in our region

At this point, it is obvious that significant political, economic and legal problems preclude unanimous agreement with respect to a particular route or mode of access in the Lynn Canal corridor. Still, the issue of improving access in the Lynn Canal corridor is important and deserves prompt consideration. Additional delay in addressing how best to improve access in northern Southeast Alaska works against our collective interests. The trick, so to speak, is how best to restart the now dead-in-the-water planning process.

Any process that invariably leads to a pre-selected outcome, whether the outcome is based on marine travel or a road, is destined to fail. The state Department of Transportation already has spent in excess of $5 million studying access in the Lynn Canal corridor. To a certain extent, a portion of the department's efforts thus far have been part of an elaborate justification attempting to justify road construction. There are some critical flaws in some of the assumptions used by the department during preparation of the nearly completed draft Environmental Impact Statement addressing Lynn Canal access. Still, significant portions of the materials underlying the draft EIS contain useful scientific data and engineering work that might yet be salvaged.

At this point, a summary review of the essential legal requirements required by state and federal law in order to produce a legally defensible access study should be completed. The department's work thus far should be scrutinized in light of a template spelling out the necessary legal requirements and revamped accordingly.

My own belief is that the fundamental objectives of a proper Lynn Canal access study (particularly the critical "purposes and needs" statement), must be revisited in order to obtain a proper and legally defensible access study. At this point, the essential purpose and need for Lynn Canal access must focus on a reduction in the funds the state is required to provide for access, a marginal reduction in costs consumers are required to pay for access and improvements that will provide both regular and predictable access.

Essential problems exist with the analytical portions of the draft EIS completed by the department to date. For example, the department has seriously and systematically overestimated the projected demand for travel in the Lynn Canal corridor. The department almost certainly underestimated the cost of road construction and artificially allocated highly speculative costs for travel delay and time considerations in an apparent effort to justify a road.

While problems are obvious with the planning efforts undertaken to date, the Lynn Canal region is too important to ignore. We simply cannot halt all work related to transportation planning in this critical region of our state. Juneau and the other communities most impacted by the decision to essentially shelve further study of the Lynn Canal access requirements need to collectively call for restarting the planning process. We need a revitalized, fresh and honest effort that will look at how to improve access in Lynn Canal. Restarting an effort that will look at how best to provide improved access can and should take place without a significant appropriation. Sufficient funds are already in place to commence the critical work necessary to review the existing studies for conformity with legal requirements. What is needed at this point is an intelligent and thoughtful edit of existing data, not vast sums for additional engineering work related to a particular mode of travel.

As we move toward a pivotal campaign season next fall, everyone in Juneau and Southeast Alaska needs to stand united in the belief that we can provide improved access to our region and capital. In order to address quirky and mostly peripheral issues related to capital access, we need to be able to say we are moving forward with a planning process that will provide superior access, but not necessarily improved ferry service or a road or any other particular mode of access. A simple, honest process that evaluates improved access compared to the existing transportation system within the constraints imposed by law, economics and politics is all most of us desire at this point. Isn't that something we should all agree with?

Geldhof is a Juneau attorney.

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