Getting here from there

Legislators go to some lengths to reach the state's capital city

Posted: Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Old-timers may grumble that Alaska's growing population and modern conveniences have chipped away at its Last Frontier status, but try telling that to the state's lawmakers as they make their annual journey to the most inaccessible capital in North America.

The barriers into Juneau are many. It's in the middle of the Tongass National Forest. There are no roads leading in or out. Some lawmakers have to travel more than 1,000 miles to get here - Carl Moses, who represents Alaskans in the Aleutian Islands, flies the same distance as a New Yorker vacationing in Miami just to get to work.

But the reward is four months in this picturesque port town of 30,000 in Alaska's Panhandle, where the mountains drop straight into the Inside Passage and the wildlife - humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, bears - is just a boat ride away or around the next corner.

Access to Juneau is no problem for the summer tourists who descend upon the town by thousands, brought by cruise ships to the state's most popular port of call. But for the hundreds of part-time politicians and staffers who leave their homes, families and jobs to take part in the annual migration, getting to Juneau can be an exercise in serendipity or frustration.

John Coghill, a Republican representative from North Pole, and his wife Luann drive 660 miles and through two U.S.-Canada border checkpoints every year to reach Haines, one of only two panhandle towns that can be reached by road. From there, they take the 4 1/2-hour ferry ride down the Lynn Canal to Juneau.

This year his wife planned to fly in at a later date, so Coghill drove alone through Alaska's Interior and Canada's Yukon, where the temperature dropped to 15 below zero, snowdrifts nearly covered the highway and dawn wasn't until 10 a.m. Luckily, the Chilkat Pass, which was closed to traffic just the week before because of a snowstorm, was passable.

After fueling his brown diesel station wagon in Destruction Bay near the Yukon's Kluane Lake, Coghill said he gained a new perspective during the solo drive, stopping frequently for photographs and to hike along a frozen stream near the Chilkat Pass. He said the return trip is even better, when the white, frozen land is replaced by spring foliage.

"This is the wilderness," he said. "I enjoy the drive. I'm able to ponder things."

Flying is the better option for lawmakers and staffers who want a quicker trip, or for those who don't live near highways. But flying isn't always an easy way in. With the region's quickly changing weather, powerful winds and rugged terrain, planes sometimes have difficulty landing at Juneau International Airport. Airport officials say improving technology has made that less of a problem today.

Republican Sen. John Cowdery of Anchorage said he and newly appointed Sen. Charlie Huggins had to spend a night in Sitka last week when their plane was diverted because of bad weather.

Cowdery is a lawmaker who supports moving the capital out of Juneau to an area more accessible to the state's residents, a decades-old argument that will apparently surface again this legislative session, which began Monday.

"Of all the people, they should have made damn sure that we got in the first time," he said after arriving in Juneau. "It's a bad taste in your mouth to start the session."

Juneau became the territory's capital at the beginning of the 20th century, as its population grew because of gold mine jobs, said Stephen Haycox, a history professor at University of Alaska Anchorage.

Juneau remained the hub of Alaska until after World War II, when people began moving into the Interior and Southcentral parts of the state. Anchorage and Fairbanks today make up well over half the state's 630,000 residents, providing grounds for the argument that the seat of state government should be moved closer to the people.

Since statehood in 1959, the capital debate has simmered.

"After the statehood bill passed, there was a big question of whether Juneau was going to be designated the state capital," Haycox said. "It's always right below the surface, and it's there now."

Ballot initiatives on relocating the capital have come up several times over the past 30 years. Alaskan voters in 1974 approved moving the capital out of Juneau. In 1976, the town of Willow outside of Anchorage was selected as the site of the new capital. But since then, voters twice rejected funding the relocation - shooting down measures to pay $966 million in 1976 and $2.8 billion in 1982 to move the capital.

The relocation debate seems likely to surface again this year, spurred by Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho's drive to build a new capitol. Dozens of applicants have entered a design competition created by Botelho's Capitol Planning Commission and a building design is expected to be picked in the coming months.

Botelho says a new building is needed: The current Capitol is an inadequate office building from territorial days, and has neither the space nor grandeur that should come with a seat of government.

And by sinking the estimated $100 million to construct a new building and leasing it to the state for 20 years, the question of relocation should go away, Botelho said.

"Southcentral is the commercial center of the state, and we look at Fairbanks with the University of Alaska as being the academic center. And the third leg of that stool is Southeast Alaska as the center of government," he said.

Proponents of moving the capital are already acting in response. Reps. Carl Gatto of Palmer and Bill Stoltze of Chugiak, both towns just north of Anchorage, have filed a bill that would require that voters approve state money used to build a new capitol.

Access is less an issue these days, because technology allows the legislative session to be broadcast throughout the state and actions are updated regularly on the Legislature's Web site, said Botelho and his special projects officer, Maria Gladziszewski. And Alaska is so big that wherever the capital is, it's going to be far from somebody, Gladziszewski added.

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