Congratulations to Gov. Sarah Palin for wisely canceling a last-ditch effort by outgoing Gov. Frank Murkowski to break ground on a dead-end road north from Juneau. A known fiscal conservative, Palin will have to decide whether the escalating price tag for a 50.8-mile road to nowhere solved the Juneau access dilemma better than improved ferry service.
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Most people who live in this area see Murkowski's pet road project as exorbitantly expensive, unreliable and unsafe.
We now know just how poorly the Department of Transportation cost estimates measure up to reality. The department predicted a 23-mile Juneau "pioneer" road with six temporary bridges could be built for $29 million. Actual bids were twice the DOT estimate. At this rate, the 50.8-mile dead-end extension would cost $378 million, not the predicted $189 million. Three hundred and seventy-eight million dollars is a lot of money to spend on a road that doesn't go anywhere. Travelers will still have to board a ferry to get to a real destination, such as Haines or Skagway.
The state has already spent $18 million "studying" Juneau access. According to these studies, if the road could be built for $189 million, over a 30-year period, a road would cost the state $9 million more than maintaining existing Lynn Canal ferry service. But if the "pioneer" road bids are an accurate representation of what this road would actually cost, then maintaining existing ferry service would save the state $387 million over 30 years.
Residents of coastal communities have long depended on ferries as a safe, reliable means of transporting families, school teams and freight. This winter should serve as a reality check on the kind of Juneau access to expect with a road. As I write this, the highways out of Haines and Skagway are closed due to high winds and blowing snow. Inclement weather also prevented commuter planes from flying today. However, this fairly typical winter weather didn't stop the ferry from its scheduled Lynn Canal run. We had Juneau access only because our Lynn Canal ferry had not been replaced by a part-time road.
In addition to the many days that the Haines and Klondike highways have already been closed this winter, these roads were open many days with a warning that "travel is not advised."
Because the proposed dead-end extension crosses dozens of avalanche chutes, the state predicts more than a month of closures each year due to avalanche danger. Building snow sheds in avalanche zones was determined to be cost-prohibitive when compared with marine alternatives. Avalanche closures, road closures, due to high winds and blowing snow, and frequent travel advisories would markedly shrink Juneau access from October through April.
Due to predictable freeze-thaw winter weather and without expensive snow sheds, Murkowski's Juneau road pipe dream becomes a crapshoot in winter. Families, school children and visitors need a reliable transportation system, not a crapshoot. That's why the majority of residents in Juneau, Haines and Skagway support improved ferry service, rather than Murkowski's road.
A dead-end road to a ferry terminal in the middle of nowhere will inconvenience far too many people for far too much money and far too few benefits.
If Juneau access is truly about year-round access, it's time to put Murkowski's road to bed once and for all. Let's use our transportation dollars wisely and fix existing road infrastructure in Northern and Southcentral Alaska and improve marine access in coastal communities. Palin's smashing success in the polls shows Alaskans want a return to sanity and fiscal responsibility.
Nancy Berland is issues coordinator for Lynn Canal Conservation and has lived in Haines and Skagway since 1979.
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