The hot question around town these days is not "can we build a road?" but "is it worth it?" The majority of people in the Lynn Canal have said no, for good reason. Basically, there is no good reason to build the road.
To begin with, it's not going to save money. According to the Department of Transportation's latest Juneau Access study, building a road would not reduce overall state costs. The state may pay a little less in annual operating costs if a road were built, but when construction, refurbishment, operating costs and revenues are factored in, the current ferry system is the cheapest alternative.
The draft study also found that there would be no new major economic development in Alaska as a result of the road. The only boost to the local economy may be more "independent visitors"; likely to mean more RVs trying to negotiate our already packed to the gills summertime downtown scene.
Don't expect the cost of living to go down with a road either. Juneau, and the rest of Alaska for that matter, will always receive the vast majority of goods via barge, with perishables coming and going on jets. A recent report from the Department of Labor found that even in a road-riddled region like the Railbelt, 90 percent of the consumer goods sold actually cross the Anchorage docks first.
As Rich Poor noted in a recent opinion column in the Empire, the State of Alaska has spent an incredible amount of money on infrastructure projects in the past. Poor cites a slew of ill-advised projects in other areas of the state as justification for purchasing a road from Juneau to Skagway. But as my mother used to point out, just because all my friends jumped off a bridge, doesn't mean I should too. The same goes for building one.
Let's look at these other projects to see what we can learn from them. The Whittier Tunnel, for example, was originally estimated to cost $49.8 million. When the controversial project was completed, the price tag had nearly doubled to $87.9 million. As for the Gravina Bridge, the state hasn't even started construction on the controversial project, yet just this week price estimates shot up another 37 percent to $315 million. How much will the supposed $281 million Juneau road actually cost us?
That is, of course, if Congress grants Alaska money for all of these projects. Prospects don't look good. Already the Gravina and Knik Arm bridges have been described as pork-barrel boondoggles on national television, in the Atlantic Monthly magazine and on the front page of the New York Times. This kind of negative attention gives more ammunition to the so called "donor" states like Florida and Texas who want a better return on their investment. Right now they only receive 80 cents back for every dollar they invest in the gas tax. They look to Alaska, which receives a whopping $7 back for every one we pay in, and turn green with jealousy. Then they see coverage in the media of bridges and roads to nowhere and the green turns to red, as their envy moves to anger. Given a shrinking national budget, it's uncertain if Alaska will have enough money to meet our existing transportation needs, never mind lay out billions for miles of new asphalt.
The entire state has to ask if building a redundant road to replace an Alaska Marine Highway System that works (when the administration lets it) really worth it? I have to believe the answer is no. But don't take my word for it; check out the Department of Transportation's Draft Environmental Impact Statement and mark your calendars for hearings at Centennial Hall in Juneau on Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 16 and 17, in Haines on Feb. 23 at the Haines High School, and in Skagway on Feb. 24 at the Skagway City School.
Emily Ferry is coordinator of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project.