A taxpayer watchdog group along with local and national environmental organizations issued a report this week declaring the Juneau Access road project one of the nation's top highway boondoggles.
Proponents of a road from Juneau to Skagway argue that the project would create jobs and business opportunities for the region and that the environmental impact will be negligible.
"Road to ruin," a report by the organizations Taxpayers for Common Sense and Friends of the Earth, identifies 27 highway projects across the nation that "waste tax dollars and cause significant and unnecessary harm to communities, the environment and public health."
The projects in the report would cost taxpayers an estimated $24 billion. The Juneau Access road is projected by the state Department of Transportation to cost $265 million. Opponents have argued the project would cost significantly more.
"As few as 200,000 vehicle trips would occur on this highway every year - fewer than travel on the Washington Capital Beltway in one day - a number far too low to justify a project this expensive," the report said. "It would be far more reliable and cost-effective to maintain and upgrade existing ferry service."
DOT confirmed the traffic estimate.
Advocates of the 65-mile road say the state ultimately will save money by reducing the recurring costs of running ferries up and down Lynn Canal.
Sandy Williams, a former DOT administrator and chairman of the transportation committee for the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, said Southeast is losing population and representation in the Legislature. And with chronic budget deficits, lawmakers in other parts of the state don't want to continue subsidizing the ferry system at its current level, he said.
It costs about $80 million on any given year to run the ferry system, about half of which is paid for in ticket sales and other AMHS revenues, according to DOT preconstruction engineer Pat Kemp.
"All of a sudden the realization is going to come to the Legislature that they are running at a deficit of $43 million, or something to that effect," Williams said. "That's a lot of money when you're talking about cutting education and social programs and whatever else."
Emily Ferry, of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said the local environmental advocacy group nominated the project to be spotlighted in the national report.
"To expect the U.S. taxpayer to continue to fund these types of projects is pretty unrealistic," she said, adding that Alaska already receives $7 in federal transportation money for every $1 it pays in taxes.
When asked why the rest of the country should pay for a road that could be used by fewer than a quarter of a million people annually, Williams said: "I guess you go back - is it justified to build any road in Alaska? I think it could be justified because when you start talking about user benefits to the traveling public and you're getting into a whole lot more than I've seen in the reports. They haven't taken into account the time it takes, which is money. Time is money."
Ferry said it doesn't make sense to build a road, considering the state will soon begin operating a new $36 million fast ferry in Lynn Canal.
Williams sees it differently: "But you see what it does; it (would provide) service for other folks that can't get road access. I mean, Sitka now could have daily service. They've been fighting for daily service for years and they can't get it."
DOT engineer Kemp said the state still is conducting an environmental impact review of the project, which has a number of alternatives, including improved ferry service, a road up the west side of Lynn Canal to Haines, and no action. The report is expected to be released in August.
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