Transportation plan draws some critics

Comments on proposal for Southeast due Feb. 23

Posted: Friday, February 20, 2004

Critics have taken aim at the Murkowski administration's latest update of the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan.

The plan, which aims to change the way people get from one place to another in Alaska's Panhandle, was discussed and debated in 19 public meetings in late January and early February. Several were delayed due to transportation problems, such as roads blocked by heavy snow and difficulty in landing at airports.

Supporters and critics at the meetings voiced their opinions about changes in Marine Highway System ships and routes, plans for new roads and other changes. Comments continue to be submitted, with a final deadline of Feb. 23.

The plan projections for the year 2025 include several major new roads that would greatly shorten or eliminate existing ferry routes. For example, Ketchikan travelers headed north could drive most of the way to Wrangell, bridging two water gaps on short ferry runs. Except for a short shuttle, Haines, Skagway and Juneau residents would drive to each other's towns, not sail. And people in Sitka would drive north or possibly east to catch a ship to Juneau, Petersburg or smaller towns in between.

Transportation Department Regional Planning Chief Andy Hughes said the administration's approach is to invest federal public-works dollars in roads to reduce dependence on ferries, which in turn depend on a shrinking pool of state operating funds.

"It's getting more and more difficult to support the subsidy to the current marine highway system at the present levels and it's our charge to do what we can to identify and develop a more efficient system, a system that will require less subsidy in the future," Hughes said.

Some groups and towns criticize the long-term plan's many land routes, such as the Bradfield Canal Road, a $250 million project connecting southcentral Southeast with the Canadian highway system. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Organizer Emily Ferry said the plan calls for purposeless roads in unpopulated areas.

"Clearly this plan is just another way for the Forest Service, the Murkowski administration and the timber industry to get the cut out by subsidizing logging and road-building," Ferry said.

The largest change shown in the plan's map for 2010 would be construction of a road from Juneau to Skagway. The only ferry service shown between the capital city and points north would be a shuttle across Lynn Canal to Haines. But the state still is studying transportation options for the area under what's called the Juneau Access Project.

The transportation plan assumes state support for Marine Highway System operations will drop from about $43 million this year to $12 million to $17 million by the year 2025.

Hughes of the state's Transportation Department said the state hopes to get most of the construction money from the federal government. The state averages $320 million to $410 million in such funds a year and the Southeast Transportation Plan would use about a half to a third of that amount.

Hughes said the state hopes for more. And Alaska's congressional delegation has put forward several proposals greatly increasing transportation funding.

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