My Turn: Capitol, not Juneau Access, might be road to nowhere

Posted: Wednesday, March 02, 2005


The Alaska Observer

Two proposed Juneau projects passed planning milestones last month. Let's evaluate these concepts to enhance life in the capital city, and see how they're doing on the journey from idea reality. Scrutiny is a good idea before speaking your mind about any given project, and comparisons inform a "big picture" perspective. At the end of the day, it is wise to allocate scarce community resources behind projects with the greatest chance of success.

The supplemental draft environmental impact statement (SDEIS) for the Juneau Access Project is out for public review. Open houses with public hearings were held in Haines, Juneau and Skagway last month. Both in person at hearings and through written comments residents of Juneau and other parts of Alaska have taken the time to express their views on the various alternatives. I went on the second night of the hearings at Centennial Hall, and spoke in favor of the preferred alternative: to build a road north from Juneau to Skagway, with a ferry terminal to shuttle motorists to Haines from a convenient point along the way.

I am impressed by the array of options set out in the SDEIS, and the state deserves praise for having weighed the costs and benefits before choosing the best alternative. Many of my friends and neighbors don't want the road built; I'm pleased a public process allowed them to voice their sentiments, so they know their concerns have been addressed. I'm confident that the preferred alternative will have enough public support to move ahead. Our congressional delegation and the Legislature will surely get behind this worthwhile project. I look forward to the day when I can drive to Skagway.

The Capitol Design Commission's four finalists came out with showcase presentations last month as well. The designs were displayed at an open house-comment period at the Baranof, and then taken on the road to Anchorage and Fairbanks, appropriate given the nature of the project, a new capitol for all Alaskans. I don't think I'm exaggerating in saying that the futuristic plans submitted by the commission's four architects were not what most expected. Bold designs, yes, but to a degree that makes me wonder if they could be built without substantially destroying downtown. I fear the final price tag would be far in excess of the stated $100 million budget.

A further problem in the capitol design process is the nearly universal skepticism with which the finalists' visions were met by the Legislature. Unlike the road, funding for the new capitol must come from within Alaska, barring some unforeseen new pot of federal money. The idea of Juneau's selling bonds and paying them off with rent collected from the Legislature hinges on a majority of legislators approving such a deal. There is no way that will happen given the current composition of the Legislature. Moreover, there is now legislation requiring a statewide vote for such a scheme, per the provisions of the FRANK Initiative. All Alaskans have an interest in the future of the seat of state government. What form of participation that interest merits is subject to debate, but we can't just present our fellow Alaskans with a fait accompli.

I contrast the road planning process and the capitol design process in several ways. The former has been underway for many years, and the end result presents a broad range of options with significant opportunity for public involvement. The latter is a rather recent process with less - albeit some - opportunity for public input. The road seems to have a broad base of proponents and opponents. The new capitol seems to have fewer supporters than those who either don't want it or don't think it's ever going to get built. Further, there has not been a range of options presented by the Capitol Design Commission - four fancy new buildings, though different, don't allow for consideration of the option of remodeling the existing Capitol and Terry Miller Legislative Office Building.

I am interested in (indeed am working personally toward) seeing the construction of a performing arts center somewhere in Juneau, and seeing the Alaska State Museum expand onto adjacent land already slated for this purpose. I hope plans for these projects will allow for maximum public input, and yield a range of options for the public to consider. I really don't want to see these ideas dying on the vine because some impossible project has sucked all the oxygen out of the room. We all must get involved in the road, the new capitol, and other ideas for making Juneau a better place.

• Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Juneau.

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