DOT plan met with doubt, support

Some question costs of road; others eager for road out of Juneau

Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Preliminary plans to overhaul Southeast road and ferry projects met with opposition from some and jubilation from others Monday at a presentation by the state Department of Transportation.

The draft version of the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan released earlier this month prioritizes new transportation projects through 2025, focusing on road construction over ferry service.

DOT is holding meetings in 18 communities throughout Southeast over the next few weeks to give residents an opportunity to comment on the proposal.

Testimony given by citizens during the meeting revolved around the Juneau Access project, which likely would result in construction of a road from Juneau to Skagway.

Many were skeptical of DOT numbers and said that the road would cost more than the projected $265 million.

"This is awfully ambitious," said Jim Bentley, 70, a former DOT planner. "I'll bet my permanent fund check that they'll never build that Skagway road for $265 million."

Though Bentley questioned the road proposal, he said some of the shorter ferry connections and fast ferries presented in the plan made "good sense."

Jeremy Sidney, 29, said he's traveled on the marine highway his entire life and over the years has experienced delayed trips, high fares and food poisoning from the ferry's cafeteria.

He said it costs him and his family $500 to travel up Lynn Canal to connect with the rest of the Alaska road system.

"I would much rather drive to Whitehorse so I can afford to go more than twice a year," he said.

Projects in the draft SATP are divided into two time frames: 2004 to 2010 and 2010 to 2025. Juneau Access is included in the 2004-2010 portion.

DOT Planning Chief Andy Hughes said he expects the road to Skagway to be completed by 2008 if Alaska's congressional delegation can capture the federal funding necessary to build it.

Other projects in the 2004-2010 time frame include a bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, a road extension from Petersburg to South Mitkof Island and replacing the state ferry Malaspina with a new mainline ferry.

Projects in the 2010-25 time frame include a road from Sitka across Baranof Island and a ferry terminal; a road from the head of Bradfield Canal near Wrangell to the Canadian border; a ferry and ferry terminal at Fools Inlet on Wrangell Island; extension of the Zimovia Highway to Fools Inlet near Wrangell; and a road and shuttle ferries and terminals from Ketchikan to Bradfield Canal.

In all, projects listed in the draft plan would cost approximately $2 billion, according to DOT.

DOT said the state subsidy of the Alaska Marine Highway System has caused it to focus on road construction with shorter ferry connections.

The cost of the ferry system has risen faster than inflation, largely due to regulatory upgrades and labor contracts that dictate wages, benefits and operating conditions. These increased operating costs are covered by the state, while the federal government pays for more than 90 percent of ship construction costs.

The operating costs are covered by the state's general fund. Therefore, the marine highway system must compete for funds with other state departments and programs.

In fiscal year 2003, the total operating cost of the ferry system was about $84.7 million. Less than half of that was covered by revenue generated through ferry ticket sales. That forced the state to cover the $43.6 million shortfall. Comparatively, the subsidy for road maintenance is about $30 million per year for the entire state.

DOT anticipates a $6.8 million shortfall in funding for the system in fiscal year 2005, which runs from July 2004 to June 2005. The shortfall will require a reduction in service, a request for additional funds from the Legislature or both.

Murray Walsh, head of the transportation consulting firm Walsh Planning and Development Services, which prepared the draft plan, said the new plan could reduce the subsidy to $10 million by 2010.

"Roads and highways present users with maximum choice at minimum cost," according to the draft plan.

It says the state subsidy per mile traveled by state ferries is 200 times the subsidy for the same amount of miles traveled on rural roads. The road subsidy constitutes about one cent per mile traveled, while the ferry subsidy requires about $2 per mile traveled, Walsh said.

The finding compared the total rural road maintenance and operations expense, less fuel tax revenues, divided by total vehicle miles driven, with the total annual ferry maintenance and operations expense, less ferry revenue, divided by total vehicle miles transported.

But some in the audience questioned DOT numbers.

Walsh said the number does not include the cost of increased services on the roads such as the need for additional state troopers but defended the estimate.

"What's important there isn't so much the makeup of the numbers," Walsh said. "What's important is the vast difference between those two numbers."

• Public comments on the plan can be submitted to DOT in writing to Andy Hughes at the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, 6860 Glacier Highway, Juneau, AK, 99801, or they may be sent by e-mail to Comments must be submitted by Feb. 23, 2004.

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