My turn: Juneau Access supporters should consider a railroad

Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When describing the Alaska railroad system to Juneau's Chamber of Commerce, an official explained that a railway costs about a tenth as much to build as a road. I asked if a railroad had ever been considered as an option for Juneau. Apparently not.

Since then I have spoken to many folks about this option, both Juneau Access Road supporters and environmentalists. None have expressed opposition; in fact most think it's an idea worth pursuing. It seems a railroad might be a good compromise for our community.

I mentioned it over breakfast with my friend, Arliss Sturgulewski, who suggested I talk with former Gov. Walter Hickel about the idea. By chance, I later encountered him at the Whale's Tail in the Captain Cook Hotel. Being a big idea guy, he told me he had often thought a railroad north would make sense for Juneau, but it should link to the northern rail system, not just the White Pass Railroad.

That sparked my imagination. I envisioned a train full of legislators and staff headed to Juneau with vehicles safely stowed away and stuff they needed for session stashed in box cars, while they partied and talked politics all the way to Juneau.

I envisioned Capitol-bound schoolchildren coming here to learn more about Alaska's government system. With them rode a basketball team, a group of constituents and Fish and Game staffers on their way to join peers for a Board of Fish meeting.

Summertime brought independent travelers sightseeing from town to town. After a week in Juneau, they would head south on the Marine Highway to continue explorations. A whistle stop at Berner's Bay allowed rafters to hop on board for their return home and kayakers from Haines to disembark. On the return trip, the train, carrying freight loads of Alaskan beer, would stop for ore at Kensington Mine.

The Alaska Federal District Court recently decided the Alaska Department of Transportation must consider all reasonable alternatives for improving transportation up Lynn Canal Highway. This was a landmark decision, and one I couldn't agree with more.

Southeast Alaska residents know mobility in our region is often complicated and difficult. Developing efficient, reliable, and affordable transportation is high priority. Let's focus our attention on finding the best solutions to our transportation needs through considering new options, rather than wasting time bickering about a road, which is never going to satisfy the majority of residents. Instead, let's think creatively.

Ferries are a safe, reliable form of transport and an integral part of our Southeast culture, but surface transportation can be faster and more reliable. A railway up Lynn Canal would have less environmental impact than a road, be less expensive to build, less expensive to maintain and would transport people and vehicles efficiently.

A railroad would be able to circumvent avalanche shoots and rock slides much more easily than a road could. Rather than DOT battling the elements and plowing a road that might get little winter traffic, a rail could be plowed by the locomotive itself.

There's something romantic about a railroad. Tracks hang from cliffs and tunnel through mountains all over the world. Unlike a road, which states that civilization is here, a railroad hugging Lynn Canal would portray an Alaska mystic, something that is important to all Alaskans and is the primary draw for the state's summer visitors.

Another point, not to be taken lightly: Unlike a road, which brings in anyone who can buy or steal enough gas or hitch a ride, a railroad continues to protect us from criminals fleeing the law since it takes money and identification to get to Juneau.

The court's recent decision tells us to think creatively and consider all reasonable options for transportation in Southeast. It's time to do exactly that. Please encourage Gov. Sarah Palin to request a new Environmental Impact Statement with all viable options considered, including a railroad. Let's work together to create the best transportation solution for northern Southeast Alaska.

• Jackie Stewart is a self-employed business consultant who has been involved in economic development for the past 20 years and has lived in Juneau since 1975.

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