Juneau Road costs keep climbing

State's new estimate around $449 million

Posted: Friday, July 10, 2009

The cost to build a road north out of Juneau has climbed to around half a billion dollars, according to new estimates the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities released Thursday.

The previous official state estimate, made in 2007, was $350 million, itself up from 2006 estimates of about $258 million.

The 2009 cost update for what's known formally as the Juneau Access Project included both the department's annual review of costs, as well as an independent look by an agency with the Federal Highway Administration, said Reuben Yost, project manager for DOT.

The state's new estimate is $449 million, and the FHA's Western Lands Center set the cost at $491 million. Another $25.2 million not included in the estimates has already been spent on the project.

The estimates from the two agencies were close enough together that Yost said the outside review corroborated the DOT estimates.

The significant increase quickly drew critics taking shots at the project.

"This is potentially a black hole for money," said Lois Epstein of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, which has long questioned the project's economics.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, an advocate of the road, said Thursday she had not yet had time to review the report with DOT officials.

The project would build a road 50.8 miles up the east side of Lynn Canal to a new ferry terminal at Katzehin River, to connect with Haines and Skagway.

It is currently stalled in court. A federal judge has ruled the state failed to consider ferry alternatives to the highway, and the state is appealing that decision.

No decisions are expected to be made about going forward with Juneau Access until the court case is decided, but both Yost and Epstein said the size of the new estimates could make the project less likely to happen.

"We are aware of the fact that the more expensive the project becomes, the more difficult it is to fund it," Yost said.

The federal estimate was higher than the state's in part because of the inclusion of two tunnels in some of the more troublesome areas. The steep east side of Lynn Canal presents engineering challenges, and is one reason for the increasing cost estimated, Yost said.

Western Federal Lands' overall cost estimate was 40 percent higher than the state's previous one. Many individual items from a broken down cost list were significantly higher. The construction cost itself increased 52 percent, from $228.2 million to $337.8 million.

There was one significant decrease. The cost to build new shuttle ferries declined from $65 million to $13.4 million. Yost said that was because the Alaska Marine Highway System is already building a new shuttle-type ferry on its own, and one of two ferries planned earlier won't have to be built specifically to run in northern Lynn Canal.

Yost said there is currently no estimate of when Juneau Access might get built. A 2007 report included a construction estimate of 12 years but the 2009 report included no timeline at all.

"We're not even estimating now, but nothing has made it sooner than 12 years," Yost said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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