Alaska editorial: Juneau road project should be stopped

Posted: Friday, May 09, 2008

When Gov. Sarah Palin took office, Alaskans were lulled into a sense of security about the highly questionable and extremely expensive Juneau road project.

She quickly cancelled a $20 million contract to build 11 miles of gravel road that someday could have become part of the Juneau road. And about a year ago, she cancelled an order for $11 million in concrete girders that might have been used on the Juneau road project.

In both cases, the spending was premature, she said.

But she wasn't aiming to kill this dubious project, which doesn't even connect Juneau to the rest of Alaska's road system. (It is essentially a 50-mile driveway to a new ferry terminal on Lynn Canal). Her administration has been moving forward with the project, estimated to cost $374 million. That is almost as much as the nationally infamous $398 million Ketchikan bridge to Gravina Island, which Palin did kill.

This project, too, should bite the dust.

It involves building a road about 51 miles long through the rugged, mountainous terrain along Lynn Canal.

The road would start where the Glacier Highway out of Juneau ends, and would travel around Berners Bay to the Katzehin River area. The state would build a ferry terminal at road's end, and shuttle vehicles and people on ferries a few miles to Haines and Skagway. The price tag includes two ferries.

The state Department of Transportation project manager, Reuben Yost, says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to decide on a permit within about a month. Then the Environmental Protection Agency gets three whole weeks to review it.

The true cost of the project is not known, but it will surely only rise. It already grew more than $100 million between the final environmental impact statement in 2006, and an annual financial update in October of 2007.

One hundred million dollars.

The maintenance on this road would also be expensive, with dozens of avalanche chutes and other geologic hazards.

As federal highway dollars drop now, and with Alaska's oil tax income expected to shrink as production declines, it makes no sense to tie up so much future government money in this project. It will use up funds that could be spent on more beneficial projects throughout the state.

Gov. Palin's own transition team recognized that. Its report noted that the Ketchikan bridge and the Juneau road "are seen as a severe drain on resources that would otherwise be assigned to heavily used commercial and passenger routes."

The team recommended that the state's National Highway System roads be the focus of improvement efforts.

Though Palin continued planning for the Juneau road, she wrote in a letter to a state senator about two weeks ago that legal challenges could delay the project several years. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council sued in federal district court over the environmental process.

That's all the more reason to halt the project, and shift the spending to other places.

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