Boosters: Road will anchor capital

Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Road Series

At heart, Juneau access is about security.

Some say it's all in the head.

Supporters and opponents of anchoring the capital here agree on one thing: Few people would drive hours or days for Juneau's legislative sessions.

But many Alaskans believe that if a road connects Juneau to Skagway and points north, simply knowing that they could drive to Juneau would make the difference in keeping the capital here. Juneau is the nation's only capital with no road to the people.

Even with a $281 million highway, the drive from the state's population center to the capital would span more than 900 miles and two Canadian border crossings.

"There won't be that many people driving down from Anchorage, but the road not being here is one of the (stated) reasons for not having the capital in Juneau," said Juneau Assembly member Merrill Sanford. "It is a psychological and practical issue."

Lance Miller, executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council, agreed that a road map is an important image.

"It will help to keep the capital in Juneau," Miller said. "People will feel they can access the capital in both perception and reality. Although not many people will drive to Juneau, I believe some will."

Juneau became the seat of government in 1900, when Congress shifted power from Sitka to the booming gold and supply town.

The move didn't cause much of a stir in the north. After all, Anchorage, where about 42 percent of Alaskans now live, wasn't established until 1915 as construction headquarters for the Alaska Railroad. Fairbanks, the state's second-largest city, was founded in 1901 as a trading post and grew with a gold discovery the following year.

But since Alaska became a state in 1959, voters have been asked to decide on issues related to moving the capital 10 times. Those who would move it said Juneau, a city of 31,000 people, isn't connected to the road system and is too far from Anchorage.

The latest attempt to move the capital was in 2002. About 67 percent of Alaskans voted against the move - the widest margin in the history of capital-move initiatives. But the debate won't die.

Sen. Charlie Huggins, a Wasilla Republican, said the capital's rightful location should be near the population center on the road network. He suggests the Southcentral region, ideally in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, some 40 miles from Anchorage and with a population of about 60,000.

A 1994 ballot initiative almost succeeded in moving the capital there, to Wasilla.

House Majority Leader John Coghill said Juneau needs three things to stop capital relocation.

"Get the road open," said Coghill, a Republican representative from North Pole. "Get a better airport access, either by building a new airport or making the current airport better. And do something about the current Capitol. The facility needs to be improved."

Losing the capital status would crush Juneau's economy.

According to 2003 statistics from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, 4,547 of Juneau's 17,464 jobs were with state government. The federal government employed 954 people while the city had 2,191 workers. About 44 percent of Juneau's jobs are in government.

Win Gruening, chairman of the Alaska Committee, said building a road is the most visible thing Juneau can do to counter foes statewide. The committee is a volunteer group that promotes Juneau's hold on state government.

A 2002 poll commissioned by the Alaska Committee said more than 60 percent of Alaskans believed to some degree that it was important for Juneau to be road-accessible.

Gov. Frank Murkowski said that if the state builds a road the majority of Alaskans, who live along the road system, will have easier access.

People "now must pay the expense of ferry travel or take more expensive airline flights that are subject to weather restrictions," Murkowski said.

But in Juneau, the road debate splits in the middle. Few people, be they state legislators or fishermen, can agree on whether improving the ferry system or building a new road would help Juneau most in keeping the capital.

In 2000, 5,840 Juneau voters supported improving the ferry system, while 5,761 voters supported building the road.

An October 2003 McDowell Group survey indicated that 36 percent of Juneau households preferred the East Lynn Canal road recommended by the state while 16 percent preferred a West Lynn Canal road and ferry connecting Juneau to Haines. About 4 percent wanted no changes and 36 percent didn't want a road and chose improved ferry service.

Juneau Assembly members have mixed opinions. Members Sanford, Johan Dybdahl, Randy Wanamaker and David Stone support the road.

"There have been surveys done, saying that a road is very important to Juneau," Stone said. "Whether people use it or not is left for debates. But knowing that they can do it is important. Perception is reality."

Deputy Mayor Marc Wheeler said he thinks building a new capitol is more important to the capital-retention cause than building a road. Assembly member Jeff Bush has said he is reluctant to support a road but that it may be inevitable.

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho declined to comment this week. Assembly member Daniel Peterson said he needs to examine all the options.

Sen. Kim Elton and Rep. Beth Kerttula, both Democrats, say they are skeptical about a road but aren't taking a firm stance yet. Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, a Republican, fully supports a road.

"You need a road to improve communication with the capital city, to improve communication with the rest of the state, transport fish out of here, and provide a year-round link," Weyhrauch said.

Sally Smith, who served as Juneau mayor from 2000 to 2003, said Juneau should be the capital regardless of any highway.

"Very few people will use the road to access to the capital when they can get there by air so much quicker," Smith said.

The former mayor said access to government has never been better, with live broadcasts of legislative sessions, the Internet and improved air and ferry services.

While some Juneau residents are counting on the road to anchor the capital, others across the state would want to move the capital anyway.

Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Wasilla, said it's a chore for some constituents to testify from distant Legislative Information Offices via phone.

"Sometimes there's lots of static and they can't hear you," he said. "It's much better to talk face to face."

Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, said that in his district there is no specific group organized against the proposed highway, but he gets mail from people who don't want Juneau to have it.

Palmer, in the Mat-Su, is one of the fastest-growing areas of the state. Its citizens want their own road improvements, to handle a booming economy.

"If we're not planning for expanding our roadways, then it will only take a few years before we are at gridlock," Gatto said.

Gatto recently co-introduced a bill that would require voters' approval of expenses for building a new capitol. The bill attempts to stop Juneau Mayor Botelho's plan to settle the capital-move issue by building a new capitol on Telephone Hill. The mayor's plan asks for a long-term state lease of the envisioned $100 million building.

Gatto said if the highway were built it would not quiet Juneau's critics.

"But it would take away one of the bullet points," he said.

Rep. Kerttula said location is not as important as who is in office.

"A lot of the problem is not Juneau per se. It depends on what kind of legislators we have, some of whom don't use their e-mail and don't return their calls. And no matter where you live, that will happen," she said.

Kerttula mentioned Sacramento, Calif., as an example of a capital removed from population centers. She said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is always visible and the media cover the California Legislature regularly.

The Alaska State Chamber of Commerce said a highway would help Juneau and Southeast Alaska grow during a time when the economy continues shifting from coastal Alaska to the north.

But former Juneau Mayor Smith said if road access diminishes state support for the Alaska Marine Highway System, it could harm the Panhandle's economy.

"The ferry system keeps us together as a region," Smith said. "I see Juneau as connected with Wrangell and Sitka as much as with Skagway. The economic development of the region will not be well-served by the road."

James Muller, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said voters statewide aren't thinking about a road to Juneau. They might be wise to review the Alaska Department of Transportation's draft supplemental environmental impact statement and consider the availability of funds, he said.

"The decision is probably better made by our representatives," Muller said.

Random calls around Alaska uncovered little interest in the issue. Fat Freddie's Restaurant waitress Mercie Ellison in Nome said she had never heard of the proposal, but that her Seward Peninsula town could use those millions to repair roads warped by melting permafrost during last summer's wildfires. The city manager in Kotzebue - an Arctic Circle town with no exit road itself - said he hasn't followed the issue but trusts that the state has its reasons for the plan.

Residents of Nome, Kotzebue, Kodiak and other unconnected Alaska towns would have to fly to Anchorage or Fairbanks, obtain a vehicle and schedule two or three days on the road to reach the capital.

Rep. Gatto, the Palmer Republican seeking to block Juneau's new-capitol proposal, said few constituents would bother.

"I wouldn't drive it," he said.

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