Road backers take case to Legislature

Proponents of road to Juneau aim to alter transportation bond plan

Posted: Wednesday, February 23, 2000

The road-versus-ferry fight has moved to the Legislature.

Backers of a road out of Juneau are hoping to get Gov. Tony Knowles' transportation bond plan changed so it could pay for something in Lynn Canal other than a 35-vehicle fast ferry.

The Democratic governor's plan, which proposes selling general obligation bonds to be repaid over 15 years mostly with federal highway money, had its first hearing in the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday.

The $350 million statewide bond project includes $35 million for a fast ferry to run between Juneau, Haines and Skagway and $35 million for a fast ferry between Ketchikan and Wrangell.

The governor announced his plans for the fast ferries in January after a $5 million, multi-year study of the best way to improve access in northern Lynn Canal examined a number of ferry and road options.

Proponents of a road said Tuesday the fast-ferry proposed in the bond issue was not among the options examined in that study, and they're not convinced it will serve the community's needs.

``It took a lot of us by surprise,'' said Juneau resident Paulette Simpson. ``We don't have any data to back up that decision whatsoever.''

Former Juneau Mayor Jamie Parsons said the ferry options included in the study, which went out for public comment, would have carried about 100 vehicles. In contrast, the $35 million vessel proposed by Knowles will carry just 35 vehicles.

``I'm not sure doing nothing isn't better than this,'' Parsons said after the hearing. ``I don't see any further improvements down the line for the next 30 years. We better know what we're getting.''

While DOT officials said the fast ferry serving Juneau, Skagway and Haines will be complemented by the existing ferry Malaspina, some are skeptical the state will continue operating both ferries in the future.

Parsons said he's not trying to derail the bond proposal. He supports the $35 million included for a ferry between Ketchikan and Wrangell.

However, he'd like to see the bill changed so the $35 million for northern Lynn Canal is not pinned to a particular fast ferry model, but could be spent on improving access in general.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe Perkins acknowledged that the study of options to improve access to Juneau pointed to a road as the most economical in the long run.

However, he said, ``There's a difference between economic feasibility and financial feasibility.''

While a road may be most economical in the long run, it's much more expensive in the short run and would take at least 10 years to build.

``We don't have $240 million to put into that project'' when weighed against the rest of the state's needs, Perkins said.

In announcing his decision in January, Knowles had said not only was the road too expensive in the short run, it was also an option many people did not agree on. Environmental groups opposed it and the cities of Skagway and Haines had said it would damage their economies.

Several Juneau residents spoke in favor of the fast ferry, as did representatives of Skagway and Haines.

``I think this is the right thing to do and the right time to do it,'' Skagway Mayor John Mielke said.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Andrew Halcro said he might bring the bill up for discussion again as soon as Thursday, but first he wanted DOT to provide answers to a list of questions about the fast-ferry proposal.

Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson, a member of the Transportation Committee, said he will ask to be allowed to head up a transportation subcommittee looking at the northern Lynn Canal transportation issue.

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