My turn: An independent audit of the road, ferry project would benefit Alaskans

Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2008

G ov. Sarah Palin has demonstrated fiscal responsibility by canceling the prohibitively costly Gravina Bridge Project and by expressing caution regarding the Juneau Access Project. She should continue exercising fiscal responsibility by seeking an independent audit of the Department of Transportation's cost estimate for the Juneau Access Project.

The DOT has eroded public confidence in its ability to objectively assess the cost of the Juneau access road. It has done this in the following ways:

• The DOT estimated a 23-mile pioneer gravel road with temporary bridges would cost $30 million. The lowest bid came in at $51.5 million. This discrepancy raises questions about the DOT's accuracy regarding the $374 million estimate for 50 miles of paved highway with numerous bridges, elevated structures, retaining walls, tunnels, avalanche snowsheds, other improvements, the new ferry terminal and two new shuttle ferries.

• When the DOT testified before the Senate Transportation Committee this winter, it compared the cost of the proposed Juneau Access Project with the cost of the entire Alaska Marine Highway System. The DOT was unprepared to compare the proposed project cost to the cost of the existing Lynn Canal ferry service. The failure to compare apples to apples gives the appearance of corrupting statistics in favor of the Juneau Access Project.

• The DOT's geotechnical consultants, Golder Associates, Inc., surveyed a 22 mile zone of the proposed Juneau Access Project and compiled a detailed report documenting rock slides, debris flows, rockfalls, mega-boulders, mega-talus, soil raveling and transitional sliding. The report also made specific recommendations for mitigating these hazards. Instead of continuing to ground-truth the remaining zones, determining the necessary construction techniques and composing a more accurate Project cost estimate, the DOT terminated their contract with Golder Associates, Inc.

Perhaps the Juneau Access Project will only cost $374 million. The problem is that the DOT has compromised its credibility such that Alaskans cannot rely on its numbers. We need other credible professionals to provide their own estimates.

Washington State DOT requires audits from independent experts to validate cost estimates for any mega-transportation projects costing more than $100 million. This is described as "work to build public confidence and improve project management by using a new method to validate and communicate the probable cost and schedule of its projects" (from "The Development of CEVP [Cost Estimate Validation Process] - Washington State's Cost-Risk Estimating Process").

It is a healthy function of an accountable, transparent and fiscally responsible government agency. Conducting such an exercise here could only benefit Alaskans. We would learn that the $374 million estimate is valid and that the Alaska DOT is credible. Or we would learn otherwise. Either way, Alaskans would have a clearer picture.

When Palin canceled the pioneer road contract, she remarked, "Alaskans expect practical results and a transparent process."

Initiating an independent audit of the Juneau Access Project would restore transparency to the process and allow Alaskans to make a fiscally responsible decision with practical results.

• Kevin Hood lives and works in Juneau.

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