Supporters of Juneau road work to keep project alive

City to ask state to fund completion of environmental review

Posted: Friday, March 17, 2000

Juneau residents who want a road to Skagway are concerned the state has suspended the project's environmental review. They want to keep the ball rolling while they seek future highway funding.

The city is expected to ask the Legislature's finance committees and Gov. Tony Knowles, in a letter today, to fund completion of the environmental work. It could take two years and cost $2 million, state transportation officials said.

Environmentalists said it would be throwing good money after bad. And state officials said it doesn't make sense to continue the environmental study if construction funds aren't available.

The state Department of Transportation, after reviewing a draft environmental impact statement on access to Juneau, preferred a road to ferries for getting people to and from Lynn Canal communities.

But Gov. Tony Knowles is promoting a fast ferry as the answer, citing the road's cost, construction time, anticipated legal challenges and mixed public support.

The state told the Federal Highway Administration last month it was suspending work on the environmental impact statement because it can't afford the road. The federal agency will respond next week with the state's options, said Stephen Moreno, the Alaska administrator.

Bob Doll, Southeast director of transportation, said he feels Juneau has pulled its punches on whether it will support the fast ferry, and that threatens its funding this session.

The fast ferry will provide, for the first time, daily service on a dependable time schedule, supplemented by mainline ferries in times of higher demand, he told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Transportation Committee at a public meeting Thursday night at Centennial Hall.

Juneau would be much more supportive of fast ferries if it knew the road to Skagway was still on the horizon, said chamber member Roger Allington, a retired state transportation official.

Chamber committee members said the state should be willing to spend some of its $300 million a year in federal highway funds to complete the environmental review.

``They're so far along, to abandon it now would not be a good idea at all,'' Mayor Dennis Egan said in an interview.

The city favors the road as the ultimate solution, but supports fast ferries as an interim way of getting daily service in and out of Juneau in the winter, Egan said.

The city wants the environmental study finished so the project can get on a list for federal highway funds, he said.

``It doesn't make a lot of sense to spend more money on a bad idea you're not going to build,'' countered Marc Wheeler of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council in an interview. ``We've already spent $5 million. How much more money are you going to sink into a project that has a host of problems.''

Knowles' spokesman Bob King said, ``It seems to me it wouldn't necessarily make sense to keep a process going when we've decided on something else, especially in a time of tight budgets.''

And it wouldn't make sense to spend more money on a document that could expire before it was used, Michael Downing of the state Department of Transportation told the chamber committee.

Construction has to begin within three years of the environmental document being approved by the Federal Highway Administration, or the public involvement process has to start over, he said.

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