Road hearing reveals city's divided line

Majority of people who testify at hearing speak out against the road to Skagway

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2005

About 50 residents testified Wednesday night in the first of two Juneau hearings about the Juneau Access Project, a proposed 68.5-mile road from Juneau's Echo Cove to Skagway and the continental highway grid.

They expressed a broad spectrum of opinions to the Alaska Department of Transportation.

"It's difficult not to be emotional about this project," said Dale Anderson, a Juneau tourism operator, during his testimony in favor of the road.

A majority - about 80 percent of the 48 who testified orally Wednesday night at Centennial Hall - spoke against the road. Previous polling, in 2003, has indicated that local opinion on the road was more evenly split.

Some residents said a road would reduce Juneau's cost of living. Others said it would reduce the city's quality of life.

Some said Juneau would become too crowded with recreational vehicles. Others said the road would alleviate "the largest bottleneck" of drivers in Alaska.

Some said the road would be a cheaper mode of travel. "A road is an equalizer," testified Douglas resident Paulette Simpson.

Others said the road's $281 million price tag would dry up funding for the state's other roads.

Several residents said they would like to drive to play golf in Whitehorse, Yukon, and for leisure in Haines and Skagway. But environmentalists said it would be "obscene" for the state to build a road that will cut a path through wild landscapes in Lynn Canal or Berners Bay.

Some said the road is "undemocratic" because polls show the majority in Haines and Skagway oppose it and a marginal majority (52 percent) in Juneau in 2003 supported it.

"It's not supported by the communities," said Emily Ferry, coordinator for the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project.

But Juneau Chamber of Commerce executive director Chris Wyatt said the two-lane road is desperately needed to increase and cheapen transport for Southeast Alaska's industries. Wyatt said the road would provide another key benefit: "greater security for anchoring the capital in Juneau."

Wayne Gruening, chairman of the Juneau-based Alaska Committee, said, "People have asked the same question over and over: Why can't they drive to the state's capital city?"

Gruening said road access would warm other Alaskans to Juneau at a time when some politicians continue to advocate moving the state capital closer to larger population centers. "We have to consider the needs of all Alaskans ... access needs to be improved."

Barbara Kelly, with a coalition of 50 companies calling itself Southeast Alaska Businesses Against the Road, said her group prefers improved ferry service in Lynn Canal.

Russell Heath, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said the estimated 70,000 to 80,000 recreational vehicle drivers coming into Juneau on the road would absorb much of Juneau's last remaining flat spaces that could otherwise be put to local uses.

"SEACC supports strengthening the ferry system," Heath said.

"It would be an eyesore," John Hudson said of the road's path by Berners Bay, where it would cross three rivers on two bridges. "It will also be an ear-sore," said Hudson, with the Friends of Berners Bay group.

Tonight's hearing on the road project will run from 5-9 p.m. at Centennial Hall. The Transportation Department is taking public comment until March 21.

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