Gov. Sarah Palin, who supported the Juneau access road in her campaign for governor in 2006, is now backing away from that support.
The $374 million project to build a 50-mile road north to the Katzehin River, where a shuttle ferry would take passengers to Haines and Skagway, is awaiting permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and facing a lawsuit from environmental groups.
Palin said even if the permits come through, she's not ready to begin the limited initial portion of the road planned by the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
"It does not make sense to go out to bid for part of a road when there is pending litigation and the outcome of that litigation could change the whole scope of the project or not allow it at all," said Palin, through spokeswoman Sharon Leighow.
That position is in contrast to the stated position of the Department of Transportation. Southeast Region Manager Mal Menzies said Thursday the department was ready to go out for bid on the first part of the project to get it underway.
"If we get the permit, we are prepared to let a five-mile project for the first phase of Juneau access," Menzies said.
Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said that would appear to contradict Palin's view on the Juneau road.
"I think the governor's understanding of what is going to happen is dramatically different than DOT's," he said.
In an e-mail from Palin to Transportation Commissioner Leo von Scheben circulating in Juneau, Palin said the road was "not a priority for our administration" and specifically raised questions about whether the permits would even be issued.
Anchorage newspaper spurs debate
Palin's e-mail was prompted by a Sunday editorial calling the road "highly questionable and extremely expensive." The editorial is reprinted in today's Empire.
Dick Knapp, a leader of the pro-road advocacy group Citizens Pro Road said he was not aware of the shift in Palin's position.
"If in fact that's the case, we're concerned," he said.
Knapp said he disagreed with the Anchorage paper's rejection of a Juneau project.
"If you put what appears to be a local issue out in a statewide forum, regionalism is going to creep in," he said.
Menzies acknowledged that the road still faced both legal opposition and permitting challenges, but said beginning with a simple five-mile contract would enable the big project to begin modestly.
Palin, however, said it was "more fiscally conservative" to wait for all litigation to conclude and more accurate cost estimates to be available before making the decision to go forward with the project.
Gov. Sarah Palin's support for the Juneau road was a key part of her campaign locally in 2006.
On a visit to Juneau before the election, she said Alaskans in Southcentral supported the road.
"We want to be able to drive to our capital city," she said.
Road support wins election endorsements
Former state Rep. Rick Urion, R-Anchorage, now a Douglas resident and road supporter, endorsed Palin and cited her support for the road.
But when former Gov. Frank Murkowski let a hurried contract begin the first 11 miles of road in the last days of his administration, the new governor canceled contracts for materials and put those plans on hold.
Murkowski's plan was to get the road started with what money was already on hand and build a rudimentary "pioneer" road to get the project started.
Even with Palin's cancellations, $24 million has already been spent in planning and other costs for the road, leaving an additional $350 million needed to bring the road to the Katzehin.
Menzies said the project already has a great deal of momentum.
"We've been working on this project since 1992," he said. "We have a huge investment in this project."
Campaigning in Juneau in 2006, Palin sounded like she agreed.
"There's been a lot of work, a lot of human and fiscal resources that have gone toward this plan, and it needs to continue to be allowed to progress," she said then.
Her position now appears at odds with that of DOT.
"Gov. Palin is not supportive of moving ahead with bidding out five miles of road on the project right now," Leighow said.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.