My turn: Of highway lies and hatchet men

Posted: Thursday, March 09, 2006

Gov. Murkowski came to Haines and Skagway several weeks ago with his staff via the ferry because he needed quiet time to get work done, according to reports. Reporting on a public meeting Murkowski held, The Skagway News quoted a Department of Transportation and Public Facilities employee as saying the Klondike Highway had not been closed this winter. This is not true.

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More troubling than the fib is what many here perceive as a threat to public safety - the highway being open at times when it should not. Five days after the governor's visit, I drove to Whitehorse and returned about 8 p.m. It blew heavily from the south and snowed all the way from Log Cabin almost to the U.S. border station. At the top of the pass, I had to stop several times to wait for some visibility in the ice fog and blowing snow. Reflective markers were snowed over. I kept thinking, "Why isn't this closed?"

In the following days, announcements on the radio stating, "Travel is not advised," made me and others believe the department is putting public safety at risk to show that roads can stay open in the winter to counter one argument against the road from Juneau to Skagway. What is the fine line between closing the road and declaring it not advisable to drive?

Equally unsettling is the report of what Alaska Marine Highway System head Robin Taylor said at the Skagway meeting, "I'm a road man."

We always knew that Taylor's and former Sen. John Torgerson's appointment to the ferry system was merely bringing on the hatchet men. Taylor bungled the fast ferry "experiment" this winter (the unreadable printed schedule). As for Torgerson, well, what exactly did he do at the AMHS before leaving last year? Torgy was a fast ferry critic from his time in the Legislature. It seems all one has to do is get elected to the state House and then not run to get passed from one state trough to the next.

Little known is that 2005 drilling for bridge pilings at Berners Bay and Katzehin resulted in finding no bottom. What does that mean for a road or even a ferry terminal?

I have sat in Senate and House budget hearings and seen $70 million go to the re-paving of a road in Anchorage without a blink of an eye. Why badger the ferry system over funding? Because there's no cronyism or kickbacks or favors with ferries as with roads. And why trade year-round, long-term employment for short-term construction jobs?

Want more money to fund the ferry? Take a hint from the cruise ships and put some one-armed bandits in the bars. Or like Massachusetts' Steamship Authority, give the AMHS licensing authority to regulate private freight as well as vessels with more than 40 passengers.

And, please, stop tying to scare us with wild-eyed tales of shipwrecks. We fear Anchorage drivers far more.

• Dimitra Lavrakas is the former editor of The Skagway News.

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