My Turn: What we need to know about the Juneau road

Posted: Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Throughout the last three years, numerous requests have been made for an independent cost analysis of the Juneau road project. These requests to the Department of Transportation and Gov. Sarah Palin were put out by environmental groups, by both Republican and Democrat state delegates, by Southeast Alaska towns and by individual Alaska citizens. So far these requests have been denied or not accepted. Why is this?

Well, in regards to DOT, this bureaucracy has been obsessed with building the road for decades. Having agency engineers who are trained to build roads, and who want to build roads, produces a bias that results in minimal and inaccurate cost predictions. This is a nationwide issue in regards to building transportation projects and has been researched and documented. So it is no surprise that DOT has gone down this slope, and it is no surprise that DOT stopped the only independent engineering analysis from going forward when it was identifying major construction problems.

In regards to Palin, I have no idea why she has not demanded that DOT contract out an independent cost analysis. While running for vice-president, she portrayed herself as being against transportation boondoggles but has not dealt with the Juneau road project. She has at least refused to allow the project to go forward until the legal issues, including appeals, are resolved. This makes the project one that's not ready to go for the economic stimulus legislation. I applaud her for that.

So what is it that we need to know about the real costs of the Juneau road project? What do we already know? We know that avalanche and debris slides are going to happen. We know that the cost of shoveling snow in downtown Juneau using DOT gas-guzzling plow trucks is $3,000 per hour and that the amount of snow on the proposed 60-mile road to a new ferry terminal increases the further out you go. So what is the cost, and how is DOT going to deal with this? Where are they going to put the removed snow? They can't dump it into the Berners Bay estuary, because that would be devastating to aquatic wildlife. So they will have to truck it to somewhere else, miles away, using tremendous amounts of diesel fuel.

And what about using helicopters to bomb the avalanche sites? We know that helicopters use a huge amount of gas and that even this bombing does not stop avalanches. Nature bats last, as we have seen with the Snettisham power lines. What will be the cost of repairing sections of the road that are destroyed by avalanches and debris-filled landslides? Will it be a million, $2 million or $10 million per mile? What will be the cost of creating concrete barriers to try to stop the destruction? There also will be the costs of regular daily and yearly road maintenance, such as removing debris, filling pot holes and repaving. We know that this will not be cheap, to say the least.

So what will be the real costs of this boondoggle road to a costly new ferry terminal? There are two ways to find out the actual cost or to get an acceptable estimate. One is to build the road. If this happens, I predict that the cost will be over a billion dollars for building the road alone. I hope I will not have to be proved right about this.

The other is to get an independent cost analysis estimate from a company that has no bias. This is the best path to becoming informed about how much we could be spending on a road that is an environmental and fiscal disaster.

• Mark Rorick is chairman of the Juneau Group of the Sierra Club and a board member of the National Forest Issue Team.

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