And the answer is - more ferries.
The state will try to improve access to Juneau and the rest of Southeast Alaska through high-speed ferries, not a road, Gov. Tony Knowles announced today.
After years of study and speculation, Knowles said his plan for improving access to Juneau is to build three new high-speed ferries at a cost of $35 million each.
The decision doesn't entirely rule out the possibility of a road from Juneau to Skagway in the future, Knowles said. An environmental impact statement citing the road as the preferred alternative will be sent to the federal government, he said, and a future governor ``could certainly opt for a road alternative,'' he said. The state Department of Transportation had estimated that, despite an initially higher cost, a road would be less expensive than ferries in the long term because of lower maintenance costs.
However, it would be eight to 10 years before a road could be built, assuming no lawsuits slowed it down, Knowles said. ``In the meantime, Southeast Alaska residents would be stuck with inconvenient ferry service.''
Under Knowles' ferry proposal, the first of the high-speed ferries could come on line by the summer of 2002. ``I believe the high-speed ferry service is a better, quicker and more affordable option,'' he said.
The decision drew praise from environmentalists and others who had opposed the road, but was a disappointment to road supporters, such as Murray Walsh of the pro-road group Alaskans for Better Access.
``I've had better days,'' Walsh said.
Tim Bristol of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council called Knowles' announcement a ``courageous decision.''
``I think there was a lot of pressure to build a road,'' he said. ``We're just really happy because Berner's Bay is going to stay roadless and will continue to be Juneau's backyard.''
The Juneau Assembly is on record as supporting a road, and Juneau Mayor Dennis Egan said he is ``somewhat disappointed'' at the decision.
However, he said, ``I'm pleased it is an improvement because what we have now is totally inadequate.''
He's also glad the governor is sending the environmental impact statement on the road on to the federal government. ``They're not just leaving that on the shelf.''
Juneau Rep. Bill Hudson, however, is not comforted by the fact the governor said a road is still a future option.
``I believe a road up the Lynn Canal is all but dead now,'' he said. ``I don't believe I'll ever see it in my lifetime.''
Hudson, however, said he does appreciate the fact that the governor is trying to speed up a solution to the transportation bottleneck in Lynn Canal.
But the plan doesn't do enough to lower the cost of transportation for Southeast residents, he said. He will push to have the plan changed to move the ferry terminal to Echo Cove's Cascade Point, rather than Auke Bay, which will make trips between Juneau and Haines or Skagway faster and cheaper, he said.
The decision was a relief to Haines and Skagway leaders, who feared a road would hurt their communities.
``I think the city of Haines sees this as a much better option,'' Haines City Administrator Vince Hansen said. ``There were some serious concerns about the road and how it would divert people away from Haines.''
Knowles' plan is for one high-speed ferry for the Juneau-Haines-Skagway route, one linking Juneau and Sitka and one linking Ketchikan and Wrangell.
One of those ferries is already budgeted in the State Transportation Improvement Plan. The two additional ferries would be part of a $350 million bond package the governor is proposing that would have to be approved by voters.
The ferries would travel at about 32 knots, cutting trip times in half, said Bob Doll, general manager of the ferry system.
``The addition of these new high-speed ferries that travel twice as fast and twice as often will be more convenient, predictable and affordable,'' Knowles said.
In addition to the high-speed ferry linking Juneau with Haines and Skagway, the Malaspina would continue to be used for that route in the summer, Doll said.
The new ferries would have about half the vehicle capacity of the Malaspina, carrying 30 to 35 vehicles, instead of about 85.
They could run daily or more often, depending on the demand, Doll said.
In addition to the $70 million for Southeast, the governor's bond proposal includes $135 million for Anchorage, $60 million for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, $55 million for Fairbanks and $30 million for rural Alaska.
The bonds would be repaid mostly with federal transportation money. The state would have to pitch in 10 percent for the projects.
Whether the proposal will make it past the Legislature and the voters remains to be seen.
Juneau Sen. Kim Elton, a Democrat, said he believes there will be legislative support since the Southeast plan is part of a statewide package.
The most important aspect of the plan is that it provides a quicker solution to Juneau's access problem, he said.
``The road option would be an option that doesn't kick in for 10 years down the road assuming there aren't hitches like lawsuits,'' Elton said. ``This is a solution that kicks in much more quickly than the road option.''
Sen. John Torgerson, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said no bills have been introduced yet and he doesn't know enough about the details to say what legislative reaction will be.
Torgerson, a Kasilof Republican, had some concerns about the plan, but said he's glad the governor is looking at day boats. ``I've been trying to push him toward day boats for years and I'm glad he's finally agreed,'' he said.
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