My turn: Juneau road should be put to bed

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2008

It was encouraging to learn that building a road to the Katzehin River is not a priority for the Palin administration.

This administration has wisely distanced itself from this project's many murky threads. A recent Empire story ("Juneau road won't save money" on June 15) revealed that the purported economic benefits of a Katzehin road are nothing but spin. It's one thing for road boosters to not know or spin the facts - it's a more serious matter when Department of Transportation and Public Facilities officials promote building this dead-end extension by lying to the Legislature, the media, and the public.

Not only would a Katzehin road be more expensive to maintain and operate than ferry service, but despite assurances to the contrary by these same DOT officials, a road would be unreliable and downright dangerous.

It's unreliable because DOT admits the road would likely be closed 34 days each winter, and unlike a ferry schedule, we would never know in advance which 34 days. Planning anything becomes impossible. For those out for an impromptu joy ride, this presents no problem. But for Haines and Skagway residents needing medical care or needing to fly somewhere (for business, or a wedding, for example), reliable Juneau access vanishes as soon as a road is built. For the same reason, a road would also compromise the ability of school teams to make the many scheduled regional sporting and academic competitions (basketball, track, etc.). Juneau access is not now - and should not become - a crap-shoot.

A road would be dangerous because it would traverse 36 active avalanche paths. According to DOT's avalanche analysis, a person driving an east Lynn Canal road would be subject to three types of avalanches:

1) Light snow avalanches that "could push a car off the highway but not bury it."

2) Deep snow avalanches that "could bury or push vehicles off the highway and could severely damage a vehicle and injure or kill occupants."

3) Plunging snow avalanches, high-speed avalanches that could "tumble vehicles off the highway down a steep slope or into the water." (DOT environmental analysis, Appendix J)

Recent avalanches that wiped out Juneau's power supply underscore the seriousness of this threat. Add to this the unpredictable nature of 112 other geological hazards along a 22-mile stretch of road identified in 2006 after the environmental analysis was complete, and one has to wonder about the emotional attachment of DOT staff to this outlandish project.

In December 2006, Gov. Palin's transportation transition team noted: "Statewide, the two projects [Juneau and Gravina] are seen as a severe drain on resources that would ordinarily be assigned to heavily-used commercial and passenger routes."

According to DOT's analysis, a Juneau road would serve a mere 380 vehicles per day in its first year of operation, and 670 daily vehicles 30 years from now. Even if DOT's $374 million estimate is accurate (and I definitely question the accuracy), there is simply no justification for spending this much on so little traffic, given burgeoning transportation needs around the state, given the preference for ferry service by a regional majority, given that the vast majority of Alaskans would never use the road, and given the annual maintenance and operations savings of ferry service over a road.

Why build a road that would be costly, dangerous, unreliable, and little used, while other more necessary and deserving projects are on hold due to a lack of funds?

Thanks in advance to the governor for putting this controversial, unpopular, unnecessary, unsafe, expensive, fiscally irresponsible Murkowski project to bed once and for all.

• Nancy Berland is conservation director for Lynn Canal Conservation. She lives in Haines.

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