State restarts Juneau Access study

Shelved by Knowles, draft EIS expected in spring 2004

Posted: Wednesday, March 26, 2003

After spending more than three years in project purgatory, the environmental study that could result in the construction of a road linking Juneau and Skagway or enhanced ferry service in upper Lynn Canal has been resurrected by the state Department of Transportation.

Gov. Frank Murkowski supported road construction in last fall's election and in December directed DOT to complete the draft environmental impact statement for the Juneau Access Project.

Funding for the study was terminated in 2000 by former Gov. Tony Knowles, who chose fast-ferry service over road construction.

Because the environmental study had been on hold for more than three years, federal regulations required DOT to reevaluate the incomplete draft EIS. In January, DOT submitted a reevaluation of the draft EIS to the Federal Highway Administration Alaska Division and was given approval to continue work on the existing study rather than begin a new one.

Tim Haugh, environmental and right-of-way programs manager for the Federal Highway Administration, said DOT was authorized to complete the existing draft EIS because the scope of and need for the project have not changed.

DOT began work on the study in 1994 and released a draft EIS in June 1997, identifying road construction, improved ferry service or a combination of the two as possible alternatives to improve transportation between Juneau, Skagway and Haines.

A road up the east side of Lynn Canal connecting Juneau and Skagway was identified by DOT and Knowles as the state's preferred alternative. But in January 2000 Knowles cut $1.5 million in funding needed to complete the environmental study, even though state had spent about $5 million on the assessment by that time.

The proposed road would run from Echo Cove at the end of Glacier Highway, through the Berners Bay area and up to Skagway. Haines and Skagway would be connected by a shuttle ferry. Construction of a road was projected to cost about $230 million when Knowles cut the study's funding, although some said the price tag would be higher.

According to the DOT reevaluation, completion of the draft EIS will require updates to cost estimates, environmental impacts, cultural impacts and socioeconomic effects of all alternatives proposed in the study.

Completion of the document is expected to cost about $2.5 million, according to DOT officials.

"Supplemental studies should be done and the reports written by the end of this year," said Chris Morrow, a project designer with DOT.

Morrow said the draft EIS should be out for public comment by next spring.

DOT then will complete the final EIS and designate a preferred alternative by summer 2004. Morrow, however, noted that unexpected data from the supplemental studies could lead to additional research, extending the life of the study.

Pat Kemp, DOT's Southeast preconstruction engineer, said the agency will hold public meetings in Juneau from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. April 8 at the Mendenhall Mall to explain plans to move forward with the draft EIS. DOT also will solicit written comments from the public.

Similar meetings will be held at the National Park Service building in Skagway on April 9 and at the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines on April 10.

The meetings will be coordinated by the McDowell Group, a Juneau consulting firm.

DOT also has hired USR Corp., a San Francisco-based engineering firm with offices in Alaska, to begin work on the projects needed to update the draft EIS.

Kemp said the $2.5 million cost to update and complete the draft EIS will come primarily from the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan, a fund composed of federal and state money for transportation projects.

An additional $5 million has been requested in the governor's budget toward the design and construction of the chosen alternative, Kemp said. The appropriation awaits approval by the Legislature.

During the last three years, DOT has continued to collect data on avalanche hazards and bald eagle and Steller sea lion populations in the affected area.

A memo sent from DOT to the highway administration states: "A supplemental draft is needed primarily due to the passage of time, during which some field conditions have changed, new regulations were passed, new land use plans were approved, and new analysis methodologies were developed."

The reevaluation also found the need for updating:

• all alternatives identified in the 1997 draft EIS.

• avalanche snow reports.

• traffic and population data.

• wetlands analysis.

• information on impacts to bald eagle, Steller sea lion, trumpeter swan, deer, wolf, goat and moose populations.

Plans to build a road have been divisive in Juneau, Haines and Skagway, and many opponents have argued that road construction near Berners Bay cannot be done in an environmentally sound way.

"We're not only concerned about the environmental but the economic and social health of the region," said Emily Ferry of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

Ferry said the road would be dangerous for drivers during the winter because of avalanche chutes that run along the east side of Lynn Canal.

She said SEACC plans to hold a public meeting at 7 p.m. April 1 at Centennial Hall to discuss the environmental impacts of the road project. The presentation will include a slide show on Berners Bay and a question-and-answer session with marine biologist Jamie Womble, former DOT road engineer Jim Bentley and avalanche expert Peter Carter, Ferry said.

While opponents mobilize to block the road proposal, pro-road groups argue that the road can be built in an environmentally safe way.

Murray Walsh, chairman of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Transportation Committee, said the environmental reviews by DOT will ensure that wildlife habitat is protected.

"It's just the sight of a road in a place where there hasn't been a road that bothers some people," Walsh said.

Walsh said the key reason to build the road is to give all Alaskans access to the capital.

"The lack of the road is the most cited reason that someone in the Interior would want to move the capital," Walsh said.

Conservationists and business organizations are not the only ones split on the road debate.

In October 2000 more than 11,600 Juneau residents participated in an advisory vote on the issue, supporting improved ferry service over the road by fewer than 100 votes.

The issue arose again last September when the Juneau Assembly voted 5-4 to move forward with completion of the draft EIS. Opponents argued there was no public notice on the vote and citizens were not given the opportunity to comment on the motion.

The Haines Assembly has not made a formal declaration for a road or enhanced ferry service. But Robert Venables, economic development director for the Haines Borough, said the city historically has supported the ferry option.

The decision to complete the draft EIS also prompted the Haines Assembly in February to pass a motion asking Murkowski to direct DOT to add construction of a road between Haines and Skagway to the draft EIS if it is determined the road project is the state's preferred alternative.

"With the recent loss of cruise ship docking, Haines needs all the rubber-tire traffic it can get. For all road traffic from Juneau to bypass Haines on its way north would be a devastating blow," the motion states.

Bob Ward, Skagway city manager, said the city supports ferry service for a variety of reasons.

"The city's position has always been that we prefer enhanced marine access as the solution to the Juneau access issue," he said. "There are people in Skagway who share the concerns over the environmental impacts, and there are some who prefer the uniqueness of not having road access."

Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.



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