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The state would save about $6 million annually by building a road from Juneau to Skagway and reassigning the fast ferry Fairweather elsewhere in Southeast Alaska, according to a draft environmental report by the state.
The project would result in the loss of about 93 acres of wetlands on the east side of Lynn Canal, 629 acres of forest habitat and 31 acres of marine habitat.
The draft environmental impact statement for the Juneau Access project is now available on the Alaska Department of Transportation Web site.
For more, go to http://www.juneauaccess.alaska.gov/
Juneau Access includes 10 different solutions to enhancing transportation in the Lynn Canal area between Haines, Skagway and Juneau, but the state's preferred alternative would be a 68-mile two-lane highway along the east side of Lynn Canal from the end of Glacier Highway at Echo Cove to Skagway. The proposed road would curve around Berners Bay, a popular recreation spot north of Juneau that supports diverse wildlife, and a ferry terminal would be built north of the Katzehin River delta to shuttle travelers to Haines.
The state will hold public meetings on Feb. 16 and 17 at Centennial Hall in Juneau, Feb. 23 at the Haines High School and Feb. 24 at the Skagway City School. The deadline for public comments by mail ends March 21.
Opponents of the estimated $300 million project argue that the price tag is too high and that the effects to wildlife and the environment are too great.
"The state has yet to make a compelling case as to why taxpayers should fork, at the very least, $300 million for a road that, according to DOT, would not reduce the net costs to the state or result in new major economic development in Alaska," said Emily Ferry of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. "The DOT study states that the road would make vacations cheaper for folks going to and coming from Juneau - a nice side-benefit of the proposed road, but certainly not a justification for spending sparse transportation dollars on a hugely controversial project."
Ferry said SEACC is encouraging members of the public to learn more about the proposal and send comments to DOT.
But the state ferry system requires annual subsidies from the state and road access to the capital city is necessary, said Sandy Williams, a former DOT administrator and head of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Transportation Committee.
"The ferry system statewide is losing about $40 million a year," Williams said. "The Lynn Canal route loses $5 million to $6 million a year, and I don't see that getting any better."
Williams said he and his wife took a trip to the Yukon Territory to cross-country ski recently and it cost him hundreds of dollars to take the ferry.
"We'd go five or six times a year if there were a road," he said.
Conversely, Canadians and Alaskans up north would visit Juneau more often with the road in place, he said.
"I agree," Ferry said. "It might be nice to drive up to Whitehorse and play hockey. The question is: Is it worth the cost and is it worth it to the entire state, not just a few folks in Juneau."
The drive would be an option only when the road is clear of avalanche debris, said state preconstruction engineer Pat Kemp. Kemp said the draft environmental study estimates that 61 avalanches along the road path could close it an average of 16.5 times each winter for one to eight days at a time.
Avalanche mitigation would cost approximately $750,000 annually, said Jack Beedle of DOT.
Opponents have argued that the road poses a serious hazard to travelers. But the study says raised embankments and catchment areas, avalanche forecasting, temporary highway closures and the release of unstable snow with explosives will make the road safe.
State officials hope to have the final environmental impact statement completed by this fall.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.