Legislators try to redirect road funding

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2008

Several legislators from ferry-dependent communities are asking that money already set aside for the Juneau access road be reappropriated for the ferry system.

The group does not include members of the Juneau delegation.

A bipartisan group of six representatives sent the co-chairmen of the House Finance Committee a letter Tuesday asking that the Legislature give priority to the Alaska Marine Highway System over the road, and switch money already set aside for the highway to provide funding for ferries.

The signers of the letter include several Republican committee chairmen, as well as two Finance Committee members.

Reps. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and Andrea Doll, D-Juneau, both said they did not support the letter, saying it pitted the road against the ferry system.

"I don't think you can mix the two," Kerttula said.

Doll, who supports the road, said she declined to sign the petition by Reps. Bill Thomas Jr., R-Haines; Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell; Paul Seaton, R-Homer; Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak; Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham; and Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage.

The letter says the project has been "fraught with controversy," and would "not eliminate the need for a ferry system, but would instead require passengers to drive more miles to get to the ferry terminal."

Wilson said the letter was drafted in an attempt to find help for the ferry system.

"I have nothing against the road per se," she said.

Wilson said she was growing increasingly frustrated with the inability to find a solution to the ferry system's financial woes and hoped that the road money could help with that.

Doll said she was concerned that pitting ferries against the road would not be good for Juneau, as both were needed.

Lois Epstein of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, a group opposed to the road, called it "technically challenging and thus very expensive," but said the letter showed a big shift in legislative sentiment from supporting the road to opposition.

She said money already appropriated should be switched to ferries, but the real benefits would come from not having to spend an estimated $350 million to build a road to a new ferry terminal south of Skagway.

The Alaska Legislature has appropriated $45 million to the Juneau access road, but Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesman Roger Wetherell said much of that had already been spent on planning and materials. He estimated that only about $20 million was currently available.

Former Gov. Frank Murkowski, a strong supporter of the road, tried to jump-start the process in the final days of his administration in 2006 by constructing a short "pioneer" road north of Juneau.

New Gov. Sarah Palin called that effort premature and canceled construction in the first months of her term, but some materials had already been ordered and have been stockpiled waiting for construction to start.

Transportation officials say they expect federal permits for the road to be issued later this month, but similar projections have been made in the last year without the permits being issued.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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