Expanding the sewers should be a priority

Posted: Sunday, June 05, 2005

Vantage Point By Robert Hale, publisher of the Juneau Empire.

As the Juneau Assembly and its Finance Committee continue eyeing options for which of several capital improvement projects may be included in a seven-year, 1-percent sales tax proposal, the fact that a planned expansion of the city's sewer system has received unanimous Assembly support is great news.

Expanding the sewer system is a logical choice as a priority for inclusion in the sales-tax measure because of what the project would mean, in a positive sense, for economic development and helping reduce the cost of land and housing.

The sewer system upgrade is but one of several projects currently being studied by the Assembly and the Finance Committee as the city prepares to ask voters later this year to extend the current 1-cent tax that is set to expire Dec. 31. Should the tax be extended, city officials are asking for $7 million for the sewer system expansion.

The other projects the city is considering as part of the $49 million sales-tax package, and the level at which each would be funded, include a recreation center at Dimond Park for $27.3 million, the renovation and expansion of Juneau International Airport for $10.9 million, a multi-level downtown parking and public transit facility for $3 million, and a mid-mountain chair lift at the Eaglecrest Ski Area for $800,000.

Just last month members of the Finance Committee informally ranked their priorities for the sales tax monies, and the recreation center at Dimond Park was the clear front-runner. The second and third choices were the airport expansion project and improvements to the sewer system, respectively.

As of last Friday, news that the sewer system has unanimous Assembly support was especially encouraging, I think, because that project in particular helps set the table for solving one of the most serious issues we face as a community, that being the availability and the affordability of housing. Improved access into and out of Juneau is certainly needed, as are additional recreational facilities, but the city can get a whole lot of bang for the buck by shoring up the most vital of its infrastructure needs: its sewer system.

On north Douglas in particular an improved sewer system, along with more of it, is badly needed. Lower Mendenhall Valley and Mendenhall Peninsula are other areas in which sewer lines would be extended under the city's proposal, and those areas need additional services as well.

One of the arguments the city is making is that if it is to be able to provide more housing, and housing that costs less, it must be able to increase the housing density in areas close to those with sewer, and this expansion project makes that possible. It makes perfect sense that the city would want to fill in existing areas in the next several years rather than expanding outward.

The sewer project ultimately would cost some $26 million overall, and the city would round out its funding with state grants, state loans and contributions by private residents and businesses.

As the Assembly completes work on the sales tax proposal, the sewer expansion plan needs to head the list. Making it a priority makes sense not just because it will fuel economic development and do much to alleviate the housing issue, but because of the health and safety issues it mitigates, and those are reasons enough to fund the improvements.

• Bob Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire. He can be reached at robert.hale@juneauempire.com.

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