Time to get serious about North Douglas crossing

Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2005

City leaders resurrected discussion last week of a project that has languished far too long - a bridge to north Douglas.

A new crossing across Gastineau Channel is critical if Juneau is going to make any headway in making housing more affordable for its residents. West Douglas is one of two areas where it's practical to open up land for much-needed homes, the other being West Mendenhall Valley.

Much of the land in west Douglas is owned by the city and Goldbelt, Juneau's urban Native corporation. In 1997, municipal and Goldbelt leaders came up with a plan to develop the area, with several new neighborhoods, commercial sections and greenbelts running along the road. The plan was to blend public and private investment, and try to retain some of the area's rural character.

As Juneau residents find it increasingly difficult to afford even modest homes, it's essential that this land is opened up to increase housing options and cool down an overheated market. But development of this area for housing is unlikely to gain enough momentum without a commercial side as well.

The area is ripe for commercial growth that could ultimately spur the local economy. West Douglas could perhaps offer a deep-water port and a staging area for barge lines. A harbor for the commercial fishing fleet could provide quicker access to some fishing grounds. But for all of these projects, a bridge connecting companies and fishermen to the Juneau International Airport is essential.

The U.S. Coast Guard has also expressed some interest in moorage on Douglas. Its 110-foot-long Liberty will eventually be replaced with a 150-foot vessel that's too large for the Coast Guard's berth at Auke Bay. A port on Douglas Island could accommodate the new ship and put it closer to the waters it will ply.

One of the big issues in developing a North Douglas crossing is where to place it and at the same time protect the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge as much as possible. Skirting the refuge completely by building the bridge far to the north or south wouldn't solve the transportation problem the bridge is intended to remedy. But it's also important that the crossing not cut through the wetlands in such a way as to seriously disturb the waterfowl and rich wildlife that thrives in that area.

Finding a balance between transportation needs and protection of the wetlands is one of the reasons it's important to complete an environmental impact statement for the project as soon as possible.

A city task force has come up with a number of priorities, including completing the EIS by December 2007 and building the bridge by December 2010. Mayor Bruce Botelho has asked city staff to review these goals, as well as a request for $1.5 million to move the project ahead.

The city should act on this as quickly as possible. A North Douglas crossing has been talked about for more than 20 years and now the time has come to turn the talk into action.

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