Local attorney Joe Geldhof brought the Lynn Canal access issue back into the limelight at a meeting with the Juneau Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee on Dec. 4. In a My Turn in the Empire yesterday, Geldhof further stressed the importance of improving access and offered hope that funding might materialize to finish the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Geldhof deserves recognition for raising public awareness on this important transportation issue and proposing a creative compromise. His compromise solution: Start the road north of Berners Bay and end it at the Katzehin River, across Lynn Canal from Haines.
With all due respect to Joe Geldhof, some observations contained in his My Turn warrant further scrutiny.
His pitch is for completing the EIS after fixing what he perceives as legal and analytical flaws in the study although he provides no substantial evidence for repudiation.
In his letter he states: "The decision to remove the Lynn Canal access planning and study from the comprehensive Southeast Transportation Plan was a mistake." In point of fact, the process is not a planning process. Since 1975 there have been three, regionwide transportation plans all concluding that a highway along the eastern side of Lynn Canal is the best solution to improve access to Juneau. The project advanced from the planning stage in the early 1990s to the environmental process, where it is now peacefully ensconced in limbo.
Since Gov. Tony Knowles declared the east side of Lynn Canal as the preferred alternative, the Department of Transportation proceeded along the chosen path. The outcome or the goal of the project is to construct a highway. Geldhof characterized the outcome as "pre-selected," however; the state invested over $5 million on the EIS, which rendered the logical conclusion based on the project purpose statement, which contains these five considerations:
1. Provide the capacity to meet the transportation demand in the corridor.
2. Provide flexibility and improve the opportunity for travel.
3. Reduce travel time between the communities.
4. Reduce state costs for transportation in the corridor.
5. Reduce user costs for transportation in the corridor.
Geldhof claims that "a portion of the department's efforts thus far have been part of an elaborate justification attempting to justify road construction." This comment is unjustified.
Geldhof challenges the legal integrity of the document; however, the record shows that the EIS went through two legal sufficiency reviews, one by the federal government, one by the state government. The document is legally defensible.
Geldhof in his role as legal counsel for one of the Marine Highway unions is naturally looking after the interests of the ferry system.
The Marine Highway System is and will continue to be a critically important transportation link for Southeast Alaska for a long time to come. As the McDowell study of the AMHS issued at the end of the summer pointed out, the AMHS, as we know it, cannot continue for long. The introduction of the new fast vehicle ferries holds the promise of making the system more efficient.
A hard link up the Lynn Canal also may help the AMHS. This alternative solves the transportation bottleneck and permanently eases a good deal of the financial burden on the AMHS, allowing it to concentrate on other areas where road access is not a possibility.
Geldhof's proposal to use two ferry hops, one at Berners Bay and one at Katzehin, wouldn't work because it doesn't adequately solve the demand problem, and three new ferry terminals would have to be constructed. The added cost of the terminals and annual operating costs of the terminals and ferries might be a hard concept to sell a cost-conscious state Legislature.
The idea of a short ferry hop from the end of the road at the Katzehin River to Haines has merit, assuming that Skagway will continue to oppose the road.
If funding can be secured, the next step is to produce a supplemental draft EIS. The field data could be gathered next summer and the final EIS could be issued in the spring of 2003. Alaska made a commitment to the federal government when it accepted the money for the EIS. We agree with Geldhof's call for funding to complete the EIS and applaud his initiative in opening up the dialogue on transportation possibilities.
Transportation Commissioner Joe Perkins and Gov. Knowles should be encouraged to reinstate the funding for the EIS to bring this process to a conclusion for the benefit of all of Southeast Alaska.