My turn: Protect the shores, don't build the road

Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2008

I read with interest the article in the Juneau Empire by Pat Forgey on Feb. 27, and the My Turn by Kim Elton on March 12 about the Department of Transportation's presentations to the Senate Transportation Committee regarding the proposed Lynn Canal road.

Jeff Ottesen, Planning Division director for the DOT, estimates the cost at $350 million. The road would be built over 12 years for 20 million per year to be adjusted upward by a four-percent inflation rate.

This plan is incomplete, misleading or irrelevant as detailed below:

1) The plan is incomplete because the route through some tricky areas has not yet been selected or the calculated cost according to DOT geotechnical consultant Bob Doogan.

2) The $350 million cost estimate is too low. According to the Golder report, the cost per mile for several miles of the steep avalanche zone could be four times that for the flatter areas. If they must tunnel through much of that segment or build snow sheds at every avalanche chute, cost could be double or triple $350 million.

3) The 4 percent inflation rate is too low. At that rate, after 12 years, only $300 million would be identified. What about the last $50 million? It is interesting that the DOT used an inflation rate over 10 percent to justify its request for a $1 billion endowment for future road spending, but an unusually low 4 percent inflation rate to calculate the cost of the Lynn Canal road.

4) The DOT's statements that number of vehicle miles traveled on the ferry system is low compared to that on the roads, cost per vehicle mile is less than on the ferries, and the state is spending $95 million per year on the entire ferry system, but only $74 million on roads are all irrelevant and misleading. They do nothing but obfuscate the issue.

If one of my graduate students turned in a thesis that had as many things wrong with it as did the recent DOT Lynn Canal road plan, I would have told him or her to obtain the missing data, take courses in economics and logic, delete irrelevant material and revise the thesis accordingly.

Although cost is a valid matter to be considered before making a decision on the road north, to me, the most important factor by far is the effect the road would have on the environment and all creatures associated with it.

North of Berners Bay, the Kakukan Range erupts from the sea and reaches heights of over 6,000 feet within two miles. Hanging glaciers and waterfalls are everywhere, with hardly a man-made thing in sight. The steepness of these mountains is the main reason for their striking beauty. Their danger to anyone traversing their base and the prohibitive cost of constructing a road along or through them.

When I moved to Alaska in 1962, I took the MV Chilkat from Haines to Tee Harbor on a clear day, and I thought how lucky I was to be coming to such a magnificent place. Since then, I have traveled the entire Inside Passage several times, and there is nothing anywhere to compare to the Kakukans.

Berners Bay, in its own way, is also an outstanding place, with its braided rivers and abundant salmon, eulachon, herring and all the animals that prey upon them. In any other state, the entire 50-mile shoreline would be designated a national seashore.

If the road is built, what will happen to this local treasure? There will be an ugly scar along the base of the mountains, inhabited in summer by countless vehicles. There will be fewer salmon, eulachon and herring in Berners Bay and fewer brown bears and mountain goats in upland areas. The quality of a visit by tourists or residents alike will be diminished.

In conclusion, I urge Gov. Sarah Palin to tell the DOT to stop spending time and our money on this expensive, environmentally disastrous, totally unnecessary and unpopular road. Instead, use the money to maintain the roads we have and improve the ferry system. If we do not build the road, tourists will continue to flock to our shores to view the untouched wilderness they don't have at home, and future generations will thank us.

• Richard Gard is a professor of fisheries emeritus and former fisheries biologist at the Auke Bay Laboratory.

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