Input shows region mixed on highway

1,600 people turned in comments in what planner says is 'not a vote'

Posted: Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Exactly 1,600 people submitted comments to the state about its proposal to build a 68-mile road between Juneau and Skagway, according to a draft state report released Friday.

What they said indicated a region divided about its transportation future, state officials say.

The document, called a draft comment analysis report, contained about 11,000 specific comments about the project.

"It's not a vote," said Reuben Yost, the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities' project manager for the Juneau Access Project's environmental review.

Despite that, people have been curious about learning the results. "Even during the comment period, people would call me and ask, 'How are the comments running?' Yost said.

"The main purpose is to make (the project) better," Yost said.

The road would cost more than $280 million and connect Juneau to the continental highway grid. But its critics say it would be too dangerous because of avalanches, too expensive and would harm pristine areas in upper Lynn Canal and Berners Bay.

Yost said the new report does poke holes in one argument against the road: that Southeast Alaska doesn't want the road, and so why is the state pursuing it?

According to the report, 917 individuals who submitted comments favored building the highway and 664 favored ferry transportation.

"The notion that all three communities (Juneau, Haines and Skagway) are opposed isn't true," Yost said.

The report did not show the breakdown of sentiment on the road by community, though previous votes have shown Juneau evenly divided and the majority in Skagway and Haines against the road.

One critic said Friday that the report failed to show how many people were specifically opposed to the state's preferred road to Skagway. "They didn't detail that. It's still an outstanding question," said Emily Ferry, coordinator for the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project.

Ferry added that the state has inflated the benefits of the road and under-reported its costs.

Yost said that that criticism and others, as well as requests for more information, will be answered in the final version of the report, which will be published with the Juneau Access Project's final supplemental environmental impact statement later this year.

Some comments will likely result in changes to the project, such as changing the road alignment to reduce harm to wetlands, Yost said.

The majority of people who commented on the project - 955 - were Juneau residents, along with 93 from Skagway, 259 from Haines, 243 from elsewhere in Alaska, 69 from outside Alaska and 92 from unknown locations.

Some people suggested ways they believe the state could improve ferry service in Lynn Canal, such as making public bus service available for pedestrians or bringing the state ferry terminal back to downtown Juneau.

Others stated that building a road would provide better access for low-income residents and more room for development and resource extraction in the region.

Still others complained that the state is biased toward building a road and against the ferry system.

Yost said the comment analysis is one of many items that state and federal leaders are looking at now while they prepare to make a final decision on the road to Skagway.

The draft environmental study lists 10 alternatives: one no-action option, five road-building alternatives and four proposals to improve Lynn Canal ferry access. The road alternative was selected as the state's "preferred alternative" in the study.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.



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