My Turn: Empire's Juneau Access economics don't add up

Posted: Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Did the writer of the Sunday editorial (Empire, Feb. 20) trashing the Juneau Access road even read the supplemental draft environmental impact statement?

The Empire completely misconstrued the information laid out in the SDEIS by suggesting that, "The recent draft supplemental environmental impact statement has taken away the notion that the road would be cheaper than maintaining the ferry system as it is now. Instead, the road would cost $7 million more than ferries would over 30 years."

The editor should have read page 49 of Appendix E, the user benefit analysis, to learn that the $7 million difference is mostly attributed to the state match costs for construction, not maintenance cost differences between the two alternatives. There is a huge difference between capital outlay costs and annual maintenance costs. The longer the economic period is extended, the more benefits to the highway alternative.

The costs for the "do-nothing" alternative are based on less service than we currently have. It is a projection of what service will be available in 2008, not a continuation of existing service. Based on the past year experiences with the Fairweather, the costs will go up substantially. The projected service, for the do-nothing alternative, consists of only three round trips per week year around and four and a half days of Fairweather service in the summer and two days in the winter.

The do-nothing alternative forces families to travel on the Fairweather whose fares are 10 percent higher than mainline ferries. That's another factor to show the $7 million difference over 30 years. The cost to the consumer would be staggering, which is why people do not travel as frequently as they would like now. They can't afford the cost.

The cost to maintain the road is $4 million versus the $11 million currently spent to transport one-sixth the travel demand. The road alternative will move the full demand of six times the current volume of travelers, provide a quarter-billion dollars in savings to travelers, more than 250 private-sector jobs in three communities, and reduce the cost of social services, commerce and independent travel.

Juneau would not pay any of those costs but would benefit from cheaper transportation and better access to the capital.

The Empire says that, "the study shatters the idea that the road would trigger major economic development or population growth for Juneau," while acknowledging that, "an additional 78,000 people would come to Juneau in 2008, if the state's favored plan is chosen."

Seventy-eight thousand new visitors per year is about 214 independent visitors per day. The Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that independent visitors spend about $281 per person in Juneau. Wouldn't our motels, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and retailers benefit from more business? Wouldn't the city of Juneau welcome additional sales tax dollars paid by visitors?

The SDEIS clearly states that a road would result in $8.6 million new dollars a year for Juneau's economy.

The SDEIS also addresses the benefits of a road to our fishing industry. "In the fresh fish market, shipping cost and logistics are critical." "Juneau processors indicate that a highway would result in more fresh fish moving out of Juneau."

The Empire dismisses the freedom that a road would offer saying, "But even those who savor that freedom need to keep in mind that that freedom won't exist 35 days each year, the amount of time the road would be closed because of avalanche risks."

Right now, because of infrequent and unreliable ferry service, we can't travel in northern Lynn Canal 90 days of every winter. On the days the road would close for avalanche control, the same ferry assigned to the Haines-Katzehin run seven days a week would be redeployed to transport people around the slide areas. There would be no interruption in service; the service would be more frequent, more reliable and far less expensive than what we have now.

If the Empire can't base its editorials on the facts contained in the SDEIS, how can they be trusted to report fairly on this issue? Before commenting further on the road, the Juneau Empire should seek the services of a knowledgeable economist.

• Bob Martin Jr. is a Juneau resident and former Southeast region director for the Department of Transportation.

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