State planners are now pushing to extend construction of a Juneau access road over 12 years, the Senate Transportation Committee was told Tuesday.
Extending the building period to a dozen years means the state will only need to come up with an average of $20 million a year to pay for the project, said Jeff Ottesen, Planning Division director for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
The state estimates the project will cost $350 million. The $20 million annual contribution will need to be adjusted for inflation to cover the full cost of the road, which will be about 50 miles.
Making a strong push for the road, known alternatively as the Lynn Canal Highway or the Juneau Access Project, state transportation officials said they were committed to building the road even though costs are rising and schedules are lengthening.
State Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, later called some of the justifications the officials provided for cost estimates and even building the road, incomplete and "bizarre."
Ottesen said the road will pay for itself by reducing costs of the ferry system and is in one of the few places where a highway can replace a ferry run. Ottesen said substantial savings come from not replacing two big "mainline" ferries, at a cost of $250 million each.
"This project is self-financing," Ottesen said. "It will pay for itself."
Ottesen said the state wasalready spending $95 million a year to maintain and operate the ferry system, while spending only $74 million to maintain and operate highways.
"The Lynn Canal Highway is the only project in sight that can achieve permanent savings while improving service," Ottesen said.
Elton questioned state officials using the entire cost of the Alaska Marine Highway System, from Bellingham to western Alaska, in their argument rather than just the run through Lynn Canal.
"It's kind of bizarre," he said.
He later said DOT's presentation was a "rather astonishing comparison of numbers of the ferry system," that appeared intended to justify a road the department already wants to build.
Ottesen told the committee he didn't have the cost of Lynn Canal ferry operations to compare to the road.
The Transportation Committee chairman, Sen. Al Kookesh, said he wanted that comparison.
"I'm telling you as chairman of the committee that I'd like to see that breakdown," said Kookesh, D-Angoon.
"I"d be happy to do that, Mr. Chairman," Ottesen said.
The road would end at Katzehin River, where a ferry terminal would be built to take passengers on to Haines and Skagway.
Mal Menzies, Southeast manager for the Department of Transportation, said the eventual goal was to connect the Katzehin by road to Skagway with what he called a "hard link." But he said that would come some time after the first part of the road is completed. No estimated cost has been developed for that section of the highway, he said.
Even after the road connects all the way to Skagway, a ferry terminal would remain at Katzehin to provide access to Haines, Menzies said.
Ottesen said the state expects to receive the final permit it needs from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in March and can soon begin work on the first year's segment of the road. That piece will be about 5 miles long and cost a cost of $7 million to $10 million.
"It's a deliberately chosen small segment," Ottesen said.
The state is expecting legal opposition and doesn't want to expose its contractor to more risk than necessary.
Ottesen said extending the project from five to 12 years may not be a wise move because delaying completion of the project means that the benefits won't come until later.
"I honestly think that may be the wrong decision," he said.
Kookesh and others also questioned whether the state's estimate of $350 million was accurate and whether its 4 percent inflation estimate was realistic. An additional $24 million has already been spent on planning.
DOT geotechnical consultant Bob Dugan, with Golder Associates, said his study shows some additional costs to deal with difficult terrain, but these have not been calculated yet.
"I think their cost estimate is still a work in progress," Dugan said because the route hasn't been chosen in some particularly tricky areas.
Menzies said some of Golder's work has already played a role in the higher cost estimates, such as in the addition of $15 million for additional retaining walls.
Dugan said more study needs to be done to pin down the costs, and in some sections it is still possible that tunnels will be needed.
• Contact reporterPat Forgey at 586-5816 or email@example.com.