The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has filed objections to the state's Juneau Access Project environmental impact study, citing potential harm from its proposed road connecting Juneau to Skagway.
"There may be an alternative that is less harmful," said Chris Meade, a Juneau-based EPA scientist in charge of reviewing the state and federal highway project.
The EPA gave the state's Juneau Access environmental impact study the third poorest rating on a scale of one to four, Meade said this week.
A worse rating can result in referral of the project to the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, Meade said.
Out of nine road and ferry alternatives detailed in the draft study to improve access to Juneau, the state prefers a 68.5-mile, two-lane road that would begin at the current end of Juneau's road system and travel along the east side of Lynn Canal to Skagway.
To reduce environmental effects, the EPA is suggesting a shorter road route along the east side of Lynn Canal that would terminate south of the Katzehin River Delta. Shuttle ferries would carry vehicles to Haines and Skagway.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is concluding its review of some 1,700 comments it received on its juneau access project draft supplemental environmental impact statement.
The department plans to publish its report responding to the public comments in the first week of june.
So far, the state hasn't embraced the EPA's amended road alternative.
"There are a couple of different problems with it," said Reuben Yost, a special projects engineer with the Transportation Department.
"Every step you take away from the north side of the delta makes the distance to Haines and Skagway greater," Yost said. He estimated that it would add an hour to the road trip.
Still, a shortened route would reduce environmental harm at the Katzehin and also would save the state $40 million in construction costs, according to EPA officials.
The state Transportation Department is changing some aspects of the project's design to address environmental issues raised by state and federal agencies in recent months.
For these and other reasons, the project's $281 million price tag is expected to increase, Yost said. The project's cost estimate has not been updated since 2003.
Federal regulators from the EPA and National Marine Fisheries Service said this week improving ferry service out of Auke Bay would be less environmentally damaging than the proposed road.
The road would transit Berners Bay and the Katzehin River delta, and would affect wildlife and fish habitat in those areas, regulators said.
To meet the Clean Water Act, the state needs to show the EPA that a less-damaging Auke Bay ferry option isn't feasible, Meade said.
NMFS is concentrating its effort with the state to minimize loss of fish habitat from the road, said Jon Kurland, a Juneau-based regional habitat division chief for the agency.
"They've been really responsive," Kurland said, referring to the state Transportation Department.
The biggest change suggested by NMFS involves realigning two bridges in Berners Bay farther upstream to reduce harm to fish habitat.
State biologists also are asking for further study of Berners Bay wildlife that could be affected by the road, said Jackie Timothy, a chief habitat biologist for the state Department of Natural Resources.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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