'Toy' ferries need a public process

Posted: Thursday, March 09, 2000

In his weekly newsletter/web page, Juneau Sen. Kim Elton recently expressed his displeasure at my audacity to speak out against Gov. Knowles' 31-vehicle toy ferry for Juneau and Lynn Canal. Based out of Auke Bay, this fast ferry would make one daily nine-hour round trip to Haines and Skagway, departing at 8 a.m. and returning at 5 p.m.

What I specifically testified to before the House Transportation Committee was the lack of public process with regard to the governor's choice. How can Elton support this proposal when there has not been one public meeting about it? When Elton served on the local assembly, he always championed public input and he would never support spending money on a capital project without proper justification. Why would Sen. Elton want to stifle public input now?

This blatant lack of public process makes me wonder what it is about the toy ferry proposal that the Knowles-Ulmer Administration can't share with the Lynn Canal public. Perhaps Lt. Gov. Ulmer could request an ``all points bulletin'' to locate the whereabouts of her public process nemesis, Belle Blue, who could whip the third floor boys and girls into ``public process'' shape.

Why should I or anyone care? During my term as mayor, the Alaska Department of Transportation began a project known as Juneau Access, the goal of which was to arrive at the preferred surface transportation alternative for upper Lynn Canal. After five years of extensive study and information-gathering at a cost in excess of $5 million in public funds, the DOT technical staff of professional engineers and planners developed a technically based and supported draft environmental document that featured four ferry alternatives and a road option up the east side of Lynn Canal to Skagway with a shuttle ferry to Haines.

During the Feb. 22 hearing before the House Transportation Committee, DOT Commissioner Perkins publicly stated that the outcome of the $5 million Juneau Access study was the preferred alternative of a road up the east side of Lynn Canal.

But back on Jan. 24, Gov. Knowles announced his own plan for Juneau access. It was a new, smaller, high speed toy ferry concept with 31 deck spaces. This configuration had never before been contemplated for Juneau and was in sharp contrast with the ferry alternatives listed in the Juneau Access Study, which had deck space for about 100 vehicles.

The only advance knowledge this community had that the governor was going to ignore the five options studied in the EIS process and substitute his own plan, was our mayor being informed by the governor 45 minutes in advance of the Jan. 24 announcement.

What happened to Sen. Elton and his administration's commitment to public process? How can they ignore $5 million worth of valid data gathered by professionals and make a substitution based on politics instead of facts? To their credit, Mayor Egan has written a letter to DOT Commissioner Perkins asking for a public meeting and the Juneau Chamber of Commerce has called for a public meeting on Juneau access. Maybe now we'll get some answers.

What Sen. Elton should be asking and what citizens need to know before this purchase is approved are answers to the following questions:

Will the Legislature continue to fund the mainline ferries in Lynn Canal if a new toy ferry is employed?

Wouldn't it make more sense to purchase one of the larger fast ferries described in the Juneau Access Project, which would carry 100 vehicles or three times the deck space of the governor's toy ferry?

How much capital money will be needed to re-configure the ferry terminals to accommodate the new ferry?

Do the hi-tech, high-speed toy ferries require high maintenance and more down-time than our current fleet?

Are there plans to raise the vehicular and passenger fares in the near future?

How will the toy ferry increase flexibility of travel and materially reduce travel time?

Will this toy ferry be seaworthy 365 days per year and be safe for passengers and crew alike?

What are the safety and environmental issues surrounding this type of vessel operating at high speed in Lynn Canal?

What do DOT's long-time ferry consultants think of this new proposal and would they put their good name behind the idea?

Has a vessel suitability study been done on this toy ferry and if so, why hasn't it been made public?

What analysis has been given to accommodating commercial vans carrying groceries and mail on the toy ferry?

Will fishermen have more difficult time getting their fresh seafood to market?

How much more subsidy will it take annually to operate and maintain the new fast toy ferry and related support facilities?

Presently, the marine highway system consumes $68 million, 57 percent of the total state highway/ferry maintenance and operations annual budget. It provides 18 million vehicle-miles of travel, 4 percent, of the total vehicle-miles traveled in the state annually.

So where do we go from here? First, the Knowles administration should get together with the legislative leadership and the affected communities to determine what the long-term commitment and plan is for our marine highway system before plowing ahead with this project.

Additionally, DOT needs to be instructed to have its technical staff resume the Juneau Access EIS process that was shelved in 1997. The governor's toy ferry alternative should be included in the mix with the other ferry options that have already undergone extensive scrutiny and see how it stacks up.

If it is the desire of the Knowles administration to be visionary, intellectually honest, and do what's in the long-term best interest of the communities of Lynn Canal, the Juneau Access Project will proceed and public meetings will commence. And Sen. Elton should be leading the charge.

Jamie Parsons is the former mayor of Juneau.

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