My Turn: Undo the Juneau road choice

Posted: Friday, March 14, 2008

I wish to publicly thank Gov. Sarah Palin for her accomplishments in undoing many of our previous governor's mistakes and for trying to restore integrity to our state government.

There is one more of Frank Murkowski's bad choices that needs to be undone: the so-called Juneau access road.

Lynn Canal is the most spectacular leg of the entire Inside Passage. The proposed road would diminish substantially the natural awe-inspiring unspoiled beauty of this jewel in our backyard.

Last evening, in Haines, I saw a presentation "Steep Not Cheap," by Mike Miller, of Juneau, and Will Wacker, of Haines, that included video and slides of their trek along much of the proposed route, including maps prepared by Golder Engineering (Anchorage). The terrain is truly formidable, and while I have no doubt that the transportation department, with its well-qualified engineers and other personnel, could design and build the road, we need to consider the costs.

Wildlife: The road likely would negatively impact the sea lion and mountain goat populations. Where would they go? The construction noise alone would be horrendous for years; and goats can't just go over to the east side of the mountains (it's all ice and rock over there). The sea lions prefer the east side of Lynn Canal and gather in abundance at haul-outs a few hundred yards from the proposed road. What's the plan for them?

Safety: If ferry service is discontinued, Haines and Skagway residents needing emergency medical care will be out of luck during extreme winter snows. The snow conditions in upper Lynn Canal are severe, sometimes for weeks at a time, and during those times, the roads to Whitehorse are not viable options. Persistent "white-outs" in the passes create extremely dangerous driving conditions. And, what's the plan for the unfortunate traveler caught between avalanches on his way to Juneau? Helicopter rescue is a nice concept, but not feasible much of the time. "Shooting" the avalanches (like on Thane road) is unrealistic. Too many avalanche paths, too unpredictable, too many explosions. Rock slides will be a constant danger. Meanwhile, the ferry system is extremely safe.

Money: If we take the transportation department's cost estimate and just double it we might arrive at a more realistic number, but even then I suspect it will be a couple hundred million short. How, exactly, can we justify expense like that when our roads statewide are in such poor condition? Haines roads, for example, need considerable repair; and have you driven the Steese Highway north from Fairbanks lately? Sure needs work. As time goes on, and permafrost melts as global warming continues, many roads in the Interior will need repair and rebuilding. Let's maintain the roads we've got before building more. May we see realistic cost estimates for maintaining the Juneau access road?

Capital move: It is delusional to believe that building the road will keep the capital in Juneau. It might even have the opposite effect. When the folks in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and other communities needing road work consider the money spent on the Juneau road they might decide Juneau doesn't need the Capitol.

Tourism: The tour ships will continue coming to Skagway and Haines, but the beauty of Lynn Canal will have been diminished. Some of the cut-banks will be close to 200 feet high; one huge rock quarry after another. "You should have seen it before."

Well, thanks for reading this. If you get the opportunity, see the presentation "Steep Not Cheap." It's quite impressive.

• Gerard Garland is a retired mathematics professor and architectural designer and builder living in Haines. He is self-employed.

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