Put the Juneau road myth to rest

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2007

The idea of a road connecting Juneau to the main highway system has always been a contentious issue. Who wouldn't want the luxury of driving out of town without being married to the whims of an unreliable ferry schedule and its high prices?

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But in 2005, the Alaska Department of Transportation had to admit the road would not actually connect to another highway. Instead, it would only extend 50 miles to another ferry terminal. Not exactly what road advocates were expecting, and since then, the news has only gotten worse.

A recent twist of fate for the road came in the form of a geo-technical report produced by Golder Associates. In part one of the three-part series, the report identified 112 geological hazards along the 22-mile stretch of proposed road just south of the Katzehin River.

According to the report, "mega-boulders" - defined as rocks ranging in size from 10 to 50 feet in diameter - could be released onto the roadbed due to rock slides and slope failure. The mega-boulders are so numerous that "their appearance on geologic maps simply indicates their presence, not necessarily their number." This is obviously a concern for anyone planning to safely drive the road. But it also forecasts untold additional cost to the actual construction of the road.

The Golder report goes on to recommend blasting through the unstable rock slopes to prepare the roadbed for paving. And where blasting is not possible, it suggests rerouting sections of the road. Also notable is the mention of the need for retaining walls, tunnels and snow sheds to prevent the road from being swept away by rock slides and avalanches. Though many outside experts have weighed in on the need for such structures, none of the previous environmental impact statements had proposed their construction. The findings of the Golder report, and it should be noted there are still two more parts to come, already undermine the conclusions of previous environmental impact statements.

Outside of this unfavorable engineering report, the news on the financial front isn't any better. According to DOT, the overall statewide cost of materials and maintenance has risen anywhere from 30 to 100 percent in the past two years. Due to this increase, the projected cost of the Juneau road has been amended from $258 million to $320 million. On top of this, the federal dollars earmarked to help build the road are disappearing fast.

The costs for homeland security, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have put a great strain on our federal treasury. The amount of funds available to earmark projects is decreasing. The Bush administration has made it clear it wants to cut the number and cost of earmarks by at least half. And with our pork barrel gurus Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens in the minority, Alaska won't be able to push through many more pet projects for special funding.

Meanwhile DOT is experiencing the pains of underfunding. The federally funded State Transportation Improvement Program, which covers nearly 100 percent of DOT's construction and large-scale preventative maintenance, is at $90 million for the year. But DOT has a backlog of work that exceeds $10 billion.

At this rate, it will take more than 60 years just to fix the roads already in existence. What's the point of building a costly new road when we can't afford to fix the ones we got?

The combination of the Golder report and the scarcity of funds in DOT's budget provide the proverbial one-two punch to the myth of the Juneau Road. It's time we start putting more resources into developing a ferry system that is functional and affordable instead of wasting time and money figuring out how to build an unrealistic road. It's time we put the people's needs ahead of politician fantasies.

•Steve Vick is a freelance writer and photographer living in Haines. You can contact him at: steve.vick@gmail.com.

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