My Turn: Road extension is bad for business

Posted: Monday, March 20, 2006

It is no surprise to anyone who has witnessed the Murkowski administration's planned obsolescence of our state ferry system that Robin Taylor announced cancellation of winter fast ferries.

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Year-round fast ferry service in upper Lynn Canal is the biggest threat to the Department of Transportation's truncated alternative to a "hard link" for Juneau. Why would anyone want to drive a perilous road when they can travel more conveniently and quickly between Lynn Canal communities aboard a comfortable ferry?

Consider this scenario if the road is built: When Haines school teams compete in Ketchikan, they would have the additional expense of hiring a bus and driver, driving onto the ferry in Haines, off-loading at the Katzehin terminal, (a poorly planned afterthought as there is no deep water for a dock), driving one of the most dangerous avalanche roads in North America (which may be closed 30 days each winter) and trying to catch the ferry out of Juneau. If not, then paying for team lodging in Juneau. In Ketchikan they would be paying for two nights' lodging for the bus driver, (drivers are not housed), and repeating this same scenario on the return to Haines. Families, individuals, businesses and tradespeople trying to travel throughout Southeast Alaska will have to run the same gauntlet instead of just boarding the ferry.

In her book "Snow Struck," avalanche expert Jill Fredson writes about failed attempts to "manage" avalanches along Alaska's roadways. In 1991, after blasting the mountain, three DOT highway operators were hit by a second slide while dozing the "Five Fingers Avalanche" between Anchorage and Girdwood. One of the 30,000 pound Cats was pitched 300 feet onto Turnagain Arm. The snow blast pitched the driver another hundred feet, peeling off his snowsuit in the air.

Following the death of his employee, DOT Commissioner, Joe Perkins said: "I'm an engineer, with some geology training, but I had no idea what avalanches could do. Even with two full careers, one in the military and one with the highway department, I had no conception of the constant burden on those avalanche-control guys. Their job is as high stress as I've seen. The avalanche impressed me with importance of giving greater consideration to avalanche-prone areas when designing and building roads."

Apparently our governor isn't listening to Perkins or the people of Alaska.

The city of Skagway, Haines Borough, Haines Chamber of Commerce, and Haines Planning Commission are all on record opposing the proposed road and supporting improved ferry service. Over half the residents in Juneau and nearly two out of three Skagway residents voted to support improved ferry service over the road.

After legislators grumbled at Murkowski's proposal to take $45 million in general funds away from sorely needed road maintenance and improvement projects, Malcolm Menzies was sent to try to "stem the turning tide" against the road that Rep. Bill Thomas had called "impractical." Menzies actually suggested that a bridge or "underwater tube" could link the Katzehin terminal with Haines. The monstrous cost of a 13-story bridge (so cruise ships could pass) or a tube spanning the infamous Denali Fault Line wasn't part of the environmental impact statement road-ferry comparison. Now the DOT proposes to divert the ferry system's federal "Shack Wack" funds to start this economic debacle. Future generations will be saddled with the economic burden of its completion and maintenance.

For decades, the social systems, lifestyles and economies of Juneau, Haines and Skagway have been built around the ferries and marine transportation. The businesses in Haines and Skagway depend on cruise-ship clients who pay to travel beautiful Southeast Alaska along Lynn Canal lined with pristine mountains, forests, nesting eagles and sea lion haul-outs. The scar of this road along their cruise route would threaten these fragile business relationships.

Contact your representatives. Tell them to re-direct the funds for this truncated road project into actually improving our ferries and maintaining and upgrading our existing roads. Tell the governor to stop kicking our ferry system around and take Taylor out of the ferry business sooner rather than later. This project is an example of the mishandling our hard-earned taxpayer dollars. Demand that the DOT undergo an independent audit.

• Dan Egolf is a Haines chamber member and business owner.

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