Meetings focus on northern SE access

Posted: Friday, January 14, 2005

Preliminary plans by the state - one aiming to improve transportation in northern Southeast and another to provide better access to the city of Sitka - were presented Thursday night at Centennial Hall with mixed reactions from the audience.

The Northern Panhandle Transportation Study is an effort by the state to evaluate service between the cities of Juneau, Sitka and Petersburg. The study, once completed, will be added to the department's master plan for transportation improvements, the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan.

The meeting also launched the scoping phase of the Sitka Access Environmental Impact Statement to establish a purpose statement, identify transportation improvement alternatives and solicit comments from the public.

"We're starting from square one," Andy Hughes said of the Sitka Access study. Hughes is regional planning chief for the Department of Transportation. "We're in the very preliminary stages of the (National Environmental Policy Act) process. We're not presenting a preferred alternative but a range of alternatives."

Alternatives for the Sitka Access Project include: a road from Sitka to a ferry terminal at Rodman Bay on Baranof Island; a road and tunnel connecting Sitka to a new ferry terminal at Warm Springs Bay; improved ferry service; an independent transfer facility on Chatham Strait with shuttle ferry service to Sitka; or a combination of road and ferry alternatives.

Hughes said increased labor and fuel costs are making it more difficult to operate the state ferry system, but communities and the state are calling for more frequent and reliable service.

"This is where we need your assistance," he said.

The proposals drew mixed reactions from an audience of about 30 people, with most opposing road construction on Baranof Island.

Juneau resident Ron Crenshaw said there is a "disturbing trend" in Southeast Alaska toward moving ferry terminals away from town and requiring residents to drive farther to catch the ships. Crenshaw said he owns property at the isolated area of Warm Springs Bay and that a road there would "drive a dagger through that community."

Kenneth Brewer, president and CEO of the Southeast Regional Health Consortium, said ferry service is expensive, making it more difficult to provide health care services to those in more remote areas.

"SEARHC is moving the health care to the villages because we can't afford to move the people to the health care," he said.

Ninety percent of the comments received by the state during its rewrite of the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan last year favored improved ferry service over road construction, said Emily Ferry of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

"It's unfortunate that we have to keep saying no over and over again and spend millions on studies," Ferry said.

She said ferry service is more reliable than air and road transportation. The Haines Highway and the Klondike Highway near Skagway have been closed several times this year due to avalanches and weather conditions, she said.

Matthew Turner of Juneau said the Department of Transportation is biased toward roads, noting that none of the 108 individuals that attended a similar meeting in Sitka last week favored road construction.

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