History trumps rhetoric

Posted: Sunday, February 27, 2005

Ketchikan Daily News By Lew Williams

Heated opposition to moving the capital from Juneau is matched by rhetoric from Southcentral Alaska pushing the move and opposing a new Capitol Building in Juneau. Some Juneauites complicate the debate by opposing a road linking Juneau to the state highway system.

Juneauites are reminded that Sitka was the de facto capital when Alaska was purchased from Russia because it was headquarters for the Russian American Company. Then the Gold Rush of 1898 brought thousands of fortune seekers north. They boarded ships in Seattle bound for trail heads at Wrangell, Juneau, Skagway or Dyea. They rejected travel on ships that wasted time going via Sitka. Courts, recording offices and other entities serving prospectors were established at Juneau.

In June 1900, Congress passed legislation including a line: "The seat of government shall remain at Sitka until suitable buildings shall be obtained by purchase or otherwise at Juneau."

Gov. John G. Brady was a partner in Sitka's largest store. He declined to look for offices in Juneau. President Teddy Roosevelt replaced Brady in April 1906 with Wilford B. Hoggatt, manager of a mine at Berners Bay. Hoggatt was sworn in at Sitka, put the capital in his pocket and took it on the next mail boat to Juneau.

Starting with the First Territorial Legislature in 1913, there have been efforts to move the capital westward but Juneau had a lock on it because of its location. Before the Alaska Highway opened to civilian traffic after World War II, the only way to reach northern Alaska was aboard steamships that stopped at Juneau. When Pan Am began air service to Alaska in 1940 with 10-passenger Lockheed Electras, the planes had to refuel at the only airfield in Southeast - Juneau.

Times changed after World War II. New four-engine airliners drove Alaska Steamship Company out of the passenger business in 1954. Jets started serving Alaska in 1962. Some northern friends like to say, they haven't visited Southeast since holding tanks were installed on airplanes.

Opening of the Alaska Highway in 1947 was followed in 1951 by opening of a highway from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula. Alaskans spread out and populations shifted. Official in Southcentral's Matanuska-Susitna Borough reported recently that the borough's population has reached 70,000, only 1,000 less than all of Southeast. Mat-Su is the fastest growing area of the state and expects to be home to 100,000 in 10 years, all possible because of highways. Southcentral, served by the Alaska Highway and modern air travel, is home to more than one-half of all 655,000 Alaskans.

Juneau and Southeast are being bypassed as Sitka was 100 years ago.

Without roads, such as the road to Juneau from Skagway and the Bradfield Canal Road to Wrangell and Ketchikan from the continental highway system, Southeast will fall further behind the rest of the state.

In the First State Legislature, when Southeast lawmakers sponsored legislation creating the ferry system, they represented 24 percent of the 60-member Legislature. They now represent 12 percent. If this trend continues, after reapportionment in 2010, they will represent 8 percent or less. It will be difficult to retain the capital in Juneau and even harder to maintain the current subsidized Southeast ferry system.

Opponents to roads into Southeast say the ferry system is a better alternative. They haven't read the facts - the traffic figures or the fares. Alaskans will always have a ferry system but it has to be reconfigured to the Murkowski administration's plan - less expensive dayboats operating between lengthened highways, and more highway access into Southeast.

The ferries as now configured aren't doing it. The number of passengers boarding the ferries in Southeast dropped from 345,000 in 1988 to 245,000 in 2003, down almost 30 percent. Juneau boardings had an increase in some years in that span but Juneau boardings peaked at 80,000 in 1999. By 2003 they dropped to 66,000, down 18 percent in four years. Ketchikan boardings are down 50 percent from its peak year, Sitka is down one-third. With that record, money for ferries will be a hard sell after 2010 to what could be more than 90 percent of the state's lawmakers.

The argument for roads is that they are funded by fuel taxes all Americans pay into the highway trust fund each time they fill their tanks. For the first 40 years of the fund, Alaskans, living in a territory, paid the tax but were left out of disbursements. Alaska is entitled to a large share of highway trust fund dollars to catch up.

Southeasterners also are reminded that as the population shifts, it is unlikely that Alaska will have another governor as familiar with Southeast as Frank Murkowski, or with his goal to improve Southeast transportation.

The day will come, too, when Alaska loses the seniority of Sen. Ted Stevens and congressman Don Young, now directing highway trust funds home. So, for Southeast, time is short.

A new Capitol building, more efficient ferries - less costly to the traveler - and more highway access are imperative. No amount of rhetoric can change history or the facts.

• Lew Williams Jr. is former publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.

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