The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday issued a crucial wetlands permit for the Juneau Access Project, the road from Juneau north along Lynn Canal, taking the years-long battle over the road to a new stage.
Despite strong support for the project within the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, the $374 million road is facing legal challenges from environmental groups, as well as a skeptical governor.
The corps announced Wednesday it had issued a permit for the road, allowing DOT to place 1.7 million cubic yards of fill into a variety of types of waters, ranging from forested wetlands to navigable deep water.
It's a permit highway officials and road advocates had been expecting for months, and they had spent months saying it was due within weeks.
On Thursday, Dick Knapp of Citizens Pro Road, a Juneau-based advocate of building the road, was relieved to get a call from KTOO News saying the permit had been issued.
"We've been holding our breath for at least four or five months," he said.
The permit finally getting issued is good news, he said, though there are outstanding legal issues to be resolved.
Those come from the lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and others, which has been progressing slowly.
At the same time, Gov. Sarah Palin has been backing away from her support for the road and doesn't want to move forward with the road until permit and legal issues are settled, DOT officials say.
DOT spokesman Roger Wetherell said Transportation Commissioner Leo von Scheben did not feel it would be prudent to spend money before then.
"It's important to remember that the Juneau Access Project is the subject of ongoing litigation. Therefore, a prudent person wouldn't expend money and effort buying materials or starting work until after the lawsuit was settled and he or she knew the project would move forward," according to a statement provided by von Scheben.
That's a change from earlier DOT statements from lower ranking officials that they intended to move forward with issuing an initial contract for about $5 million worth of work as soon as the corps permit was in hand.
Von Scheben's statement defended the change, however.
"The governor has repeatedly said that her administration will proceed in a fiscally conservative and common sense manner, including this project, particularly since federal highway funding is estimated to decline," he said.
SEACC's Russell Heath said he was disappointed the permit had been issued and that the state was moving forward with the road.
"The DOT is pressing ahead with a project costing hundreds of millions of dollars they don't have, a large majority don't want, and doesn't have a definitive price tag," he said.
Knapp disputed Heath, saying the Federal Highway Administration would pay the bulk of the cost, that he believed most Juneau residents want the road, and that the cost estimates are adequate.
Heath and others said they had not yet had time to review the lengthy permits, but that he was eager to do so.
"The key thing to see is how they handle some of the issues around sea lion rookeries, though the permit is largely about how many wetlands get destroyed," he said.
The permit allows filling of 110 acres of wetlands, according to the corps.
That's needed to complete both the 50.8-mile highway, as well as build a new ferry terminal at the mouth of the Katzehin River from which shuttle ferries would run across Lynn Canal to Haines and 18 miles north to Skagway.
Earthjustice's lawsuit doesn't look at the corps permit, but focuses on what it calls inadequate analysis of impacts to Steller sea lion habitat and old growth forest reserves. It also said DOT overstated demand for the road and failed to consider more environmentally friendly ferry alternatives.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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