State presses on as highway funds remain in limbo

Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Road Series

Building a road from Juneau to Skagway may take longer than predicted.

So far, Congress has proposed $15 million over the next five years for the 68.5-mile road, which the state estimates it can build for $281 million. That is about 5 percent of its total cost.

State officials said they plan to pay for most of the project with federal earmarks and hope to begin construction in 2006 and finish in 2010.

Unless Congress pitches in more, though, the proposed road may take longer and could dig more deeply into the state's highway budget.

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"It's important for this project to get some recognition by the folks in Washington, D.C.," said state Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, who supports the idea.

The uncertainty over federal funding is more ammunition for the road's critics within the northern Panhandle. They continue to question its cost and feasibility.

Haines resident Rob Goldberg has reviewed the costs for other projects in the region. He pointed out that rebuilding Glacier Highway from Amalga Harbor to Eagle Beach is projected to cost $3.2 million per mile, for example. That compares to the state estimate of $3.85 million per mile from Juneau to Skagway.

"Is it really possible that blasting a road through some of the most challenging terrain in Alaska can only cost a few hundred thousand dollars more per mile than reconstructing existing roads in the area?" he said.

The Lynn Canal route will require 28 bridges for rivers, streams and avalanche chutes. Crews would blast 13 million cubic yards of rock from the coastline.

The state is confident about its cost estimate, responded Pat Kemp, Southeast Alaska regional pre-construction engineer for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

If the state received all the money it needed at once, it could complete the road in three to five years, Kemp said.

With limited federal funds, it is more likely that the road would be built in segments over a longer period.

"One of the beauties of this project is that there are intermediate destinations," such as the proposed Kensington Mine or the Katzehin River, said Jeff Ottesen, director of program development for the Transportation Department.

"The question will become, how fast will we proceed ... and how much money will need to come out of the state's program," Ottesen said.

Ottesen said he is unclear about whether Congress will require "deductive earmarks" that force the state to subtract the $15 million and other projects' earmarks from its transportation budget.

The possibility of dipping deeper into the state program to fund expensive new roads should be a warning for Alaskans who want the state to fix their potholes, said Emily Ferry, coordinator of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project.

But Juneau road booster Win Gruening, chairman of the Alaska Committee, said he doesn't see the big problem.

"We don't need all the money in one year. Once the road is placed as a priority, there's no reason that (funding) can't be spread over a number of years," he said.

The Juneau road would skirt the east side of Lynn Canal's steep fjord, crossing two river systems and 61 avalanche chutes on its way to Skagway.

The roadbed could require one of the largest rock excavations of any Alaska road project. Estimated at $89 million, excavation is the most expensive part, Kemp said.

The second most expensive is the series of 28 bridges, estimated at $50 million.

Road maintenance plus avalanche control is expected to cost $1.5 million annually, but that figure does not include snowplowing or patrolling.

The project's critics say the state has left some major costs out of its construction budget, including an estimated $15 million to build snow sheds to divert slides at three avalanche chutes.

The state would operate a road maintenance station halfway between Juneau and Skagway 24 hours a day from November to March. Nine workers and two avalanche specialists would be assigned to the highway.

The proposed highway is one of a number of multimillion-dollar road projects promoted by the Murkowski administration and U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the outgoing chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

With Young in a pivotal role for securing the funds, Congress plans to earmark $721.9 million for 39 Alaska projects, including the Juneau road, in its $284 billion draft highway reauthorization bill. That bill is to be finalized this spring.

Among the other projects, the Gravina Bridge - linking Ketchikan to Gravina Island and its airport - would get a $223 million earmark. The Knik Arm Bridge near Anchorage would get $200 million.

The Washington, D.C. -based group Taxpayers for Common Sense slammed the bill's 4,128 earmarks as wasteful.

"The fact that these projects are concentrated in the hands of a few powerful members of Congress only underscores the fact that transportation pork is bad transportation policy, and terrible fiscal policy," said Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The state is closing its comment period for the road's draft supplemental environmental impact statement on Monday. After reviewing comments and making revisions, the officials plan to release a final version of the document in August.

The state likely will issue a final decision in October. At that point, road engineers will prepare final designs and residents will have the option to challenge the project in court, said Reuben Yost, the road project manager.

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