A proposed road north out of Juneau could be issued a clean-water permit as soon as early fall, bringing the project closer to reality.
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Approval of the permit would allow the state to advertise construction bids for parts of the 51-mile road.
The permit would allow the state to discharge 2.9 million cubic yards of fill into roughly 258 acres of waters, including wetlands, stream channels and other waters.
"We are three or four months out for making a decision on this," said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Patricia Richardson on Tuesday.
She said the Corps was working with officials from the National Marine Fisheries Service on possible risks related to endangered species, such as humpback whales and Steller sea lions that inhabit the region around the proposed road. The highway would run from Echo Cove north of Juneau up the east side of Lynn Canal to the Katzehin River. It also would include a ferry terminal for shuttles to Haines and Skagway.
Richardson said she could not give a date for a decision on whether a permit would be issued.
"We are just working through the issues," she said. "When we are processing permits, especially when there is some controversy involved, it is hard to predict a date."
Although there is a chance the permit will be denied by the Corps, department officials remain optimistic it will be issued.
Mal Menzies, who oversees the Southeast region for the Alaska Department of Transportation, described a May 29 meeting with the Corps' top officials as "favorable."
"Myself, being the eternal optimist that I am, I expect to see a favorable decision in late summer or early fall," he said.
Menzies said that if the permit is granted, the department would then begin advertising for construction bids on up to three zoned areas.
"What we will bid now is a full design... we would bid it as a highway," he said.
Culverts and pipe conduit ordered for the project are stockpiled for use on the north road project.
"Or it could be used on other projects as warranted per some legislative action," Menzies said.
Menzies said the department is working on evaluating how much the project will cost, but the latest estimates put the price tag at between $280 and $290 million.
Meanwhile, Citizens Pro Road has launched a radio ad campaign touting the benefits of the road.
"This is the time of year where people use the ferry the most, and they also get to look at the road," group member Rich Poor said.
"Our intention is to keep people thinking about it, especially at a time when people would be wanting to get out of Juneau."
The ads also challenge environmental groups such as Southeast Alaska Conservation Council to stop litigating development projects.
"What now SEACC? Isn't just one lawsuit against development enough?" one ad says.
Buck Lindekugel, the staff attorney for the regional environmental organization, said in a recent interview that there are still many questions about the road project that have gone unanswered.
"How much will the road really cost? How will they avoid blasting sea lion habitat? How safe will this road be?" he asked.
"We think the Corps of Engineers has to address these issues before the 404 permit," he said. The permit decision should shed some light on these questions.
Lois Epstein, an engineer and watchdog for the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, also said she had several questions.
"We are talking about one of the toughest road projects in the country," she said. "There is no place in the Lower 48 where you have all these hazards and so close together."
Contact Brittany Retherford at 523-2276 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.