My turn: Alaska's transportation dilemma

Posted: Tuesday, May 20, 2008

In recent weeks a lot of newsprint has been expended regarding the downsides of moving ahead with construction of the Lynn Canal Highway. Objections range from the potential danger of avalanches, concerns for the environment, perceived difficulties with design and construction and the high cost of the project, currently estimated by the Department of Transportation at $374 million.

Though emphasis varies with the specific interests of the critics, universal concern centers on the cost of the project and the effect on other projects throughout the state.

The governor has recently taken what appears to be a less favorable position on the road than she reportedly held at the outset of her term.

When queried by a local reporter as to my reaction to her apparent shift, I voiced mild disappointment, hoping that her current position is merely a "time out" while she reviews "the bidding."

Surface transportation between Juneau and Haines and Skagway is currently furnished by the Alaska Marine Highway System. Opponents of the Lynn Canal Highway contend that such service is "tried and true" and just needs to be improved.

Unfortunately, no one has come up with an "improvement plan" that will stand the test of a profit and loss statement; and no one ever will, because the demographics of the region do not support a standard business model.

Recent operating budgets of AMHS are at level of about $150 million per year. This amount breaks down into roughly $50 million in revenue and $100 million in state subsidy. In the Lynn Canal corridor, annual operating costs are about $20 million supported by approximately $8 million in revenue and $12 million in state subsidy.

Current DOT estimates for maintenance of the Lynn Canal Highway are less than $2 million annually, so construction of the road would result in a savings of at least $10 million per year in unrestricted general fund dollars. These are funds which could be used for any purpose within the state including improving AMHS service on other routes.

Notwithstanding the savings realized on the operating side of the ledger, concerns remain when one addresses a capital expenditure of $374 million for the road.

What the anti-road lobby fails to acknowledge is that this money cannot be used for general purposes throughout the state (education, sanitation, potholes, etc.). Ninety percent of the $374 million ($337 million) represents federal funds restricted to the development and construction of transportation infrastructure. Translation? This money cannot be used to fix potholes or for general road maintenance.

The question for our governor is to decide whether it would be best to build the road or build new mainline ferries at a cost of about $350 million each. It is estimated that construction of the highway would result in a fleet requirement reduction of 1.5 mainline ship years.

Assuming then that only one mainliner required replacement over the next 10 years, one might argue that "it's a wash" whether the money is put into the road or the ferry. However, taking the mainliner option would not necessarily improve the service and the state would still be faced with an operating subsidy of $12 million per year on that route.

Further, most of the ships in the 11 vessel fleet face replacement over the next 10 years. Replacing ships at $350 million each, even with federal funds, will exert pressures on other critical projects, making the subsidy savings realized from the highway even more significant.

Besides, why export jobs to Louisiana or Mississippi where the ferries would probably be built? Alaskans would be put to work building the Lynn Canal Highway.

The State Transportation Improvement Plan is right on target in its advocacy for building roads wherever possible and augmenting with suitable shuttle ferries. The results in this case would appear to be "win-win" for all concerned.

Construction of the Lynn Canal Highway would represent a significant contribution to transportation infrastructure in the state; regional economic and social ties would be strengthened and short- and long-term jobs would be created in a region in need of economic stimulus.

Conclusion: Build the road. It's not going to get any cheaper.

• Richard J. Knapp is a Juneau resident who served as Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities under Gov. Bill Sheffield.

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