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Court halts Juneau road project

Judge says improved ferry service should be studied as option

Posted: Sunday, February 15, 2009

A federal judge has overturned the permits for the Juneau Access highway up Lynn Canal, handing road building advocates a major defeat.

The $350 million road had been on hold, awaiting outcome of the court case.

Judge John Sedwick of the Alaska District Court ruled Friday that enhanced ferry service should have been studied as an option for improving access to Juneau.

Sedwick said that could be done without building a road, something the Environmental Impact Statement should have included among the alternatives that it reviewed.

The Environmental Impact Study "did not include a reasonable alternative for improving ferry transportation using existing infrastructure, such as by adjusting ferry schedules, increasing frequency of ferry runs, reducing loading/unloading times, reducing fares, or other improvements," Sedwick said.

The state Department of Transportation wants to build the 50.8 mile road north to a new ferry terminal at Katzehin, where newly constructed shuttle ferries would make regular runs to Haines and Skagway.

Sedwick overturned the federal Record of Decision, which allows the Juneau Road to get federal money, and also vacated a related U.S. Forest Service permit.

The lawsuit by environmentalists was against the Federal Highway Administration and the Forest Service, with the state of Alaska intervening to support the highway.

State Department of Transportation officials were unable to say Friday what the impact of the ruling could mean.

"We are reviewing the decision and getting input from the (Federal Highway Administration.) We will comment further when we are able to consult with the (Alaska) Department of Law and review the decision more diligently," spokesman Roger Wetherell said Friday in a written statement.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Leo Von Scheben last month told legislators that even if Sedwick had ruled in the state's favor, opponents could sue again on other grounds.

"This thing could drag on for a couple more years with lawsuits," he said.

The project was challenged by a coalition of environmental groups, led by the Juneau-based Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

"What we would like to see happen is to take the money sitting in the road fund and use it to build new ferries," said Mark Gnadt, spokesman for SEACC.

The ruling appears to justify the decision by Gov. Sarah Palin to stop the Department of Transportation from issuing a contract to build the $350 million road until there was a favorable court ruling.

"I think she made the right decision," said Kate Glover, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which represented the plaintiffs.

SEACC had not sought an injunction to prevent work on the road, but state officials feared that if they issued a construction contract one would be sought. Sedwick on Friday also issued an injunction barring work before the new studies were done and permits issued.

State transportation officials who drafted the EIS did not consider the alternative of improved ferry service, he said. They instead studied an alternative called "no action," which would mean decreased service over time.

Still, Sedwick said, the road supporters used that argument to "inexplicably conclude" they had actually considered improved ferry service.

Road supporters have been arguing for years that building the road would greatly strengthen Juneau's economy by improving access and reducing shipping costs. That would not only help retain the capital, they say, but the construction jobs would also provide a crucial boost to the local economy.

While the plan now is not to extend the road to Skagway, state Transportation officials continue to hope for a "hard link" to Skagway at some later date.

Opponents fear the environmental impact of the road on the undeveloped country along Lynn Canal, and doubt that both the shipping cost savings and the effect on retaining the capital will be worth the investment.

Those disagreements often resort to road versus ferries arguments. Phone surveys conducted for the Environmental Impact Statement found the public divided on the issue.

Last month, Von Scheben contracted with an outside agency to review the official cost estimates for the project. That review was expected to be completed by next month, but it is not clear what Sedwick's ruling will mean for that review.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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