Plenty of reasons to build the bridge

Posted: Sunday, July 11, 2010

A few weeks ago at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon, a group of Juneau residents presented their vision for the Douglas Causeway, one of the most substantial improvements possible to our quality of life in Alaska's Capital City.

Since long before I first moved to Juneau in the early 1990s, there has been talk about a second means of access between the mainland where Juneau and the Mendenhall Valley are located and Douglas Island. These ideas have all focused on some sort of connection north of the existing bridge, and have been variously referred to as the North, or Second, Douglas crossings. The Douglas Causeway is far and ahead the most sensible plan yet to make the concept a reality, which I believe can and will go forward.

Some may ask, why do we need a second connection with Douglas Island when we already have a bridge? To this simple question there are a host of good answers. The first and foremost reason is safety. With only one means of land access between the mainland and the island, continuous and dependable transportation between Douglas and the mainland hinges on a device with no fail-safe mechanism. The catastrophic failure of the Douglas Bridge would pose massive health and safety challenges to the community, not just to those immediately on either side of the bridge. For a capital city in the richest state (and the most prosperous country) in the world, this is unacceptable.

Avalanches are a real threat to many parts of our community. If a massive snowslide were to occur in one of many zones where it's statistically the most probable, downtown Juneau would be cut off from medical facilities, and we'd be forced to convert our convention center into a makeshift emergency room. While I love Centennial Hall as much as anyone, this is absurd contingency planning, and the Douglas Causeway will improve our ability to respond to such a crisis.

Even without an avalanche or a broken bridge, it just makes sense to facilitate easier travel from one end of our community to the other. The Douglas Causeway will be perfectly situated to connect the four corners of our community. As an avid skier, I have the luxury of leaving my house downtown and driving over the bridge to Douglas Highway, and then on to Eaglecrest in short order. Those who live out the road will tell you it's not so easy having to drive all the way downtown to cross over to the island, and then backtrack north. While this journey is clearly worthwhile, it results in the consumption of much more scarce, expensive fossil fuel than would otherwise be burned. These access benefits will accrue to every motorist in Juneau cutting the time for many journeys in half.

With increased and easier transportation come tangible economic benefits. People will be able to access merchants and other businesses more readily. Visitors to our town - whether during the legislative session, the summer tourist season, or slow time in the fall - will all find it easier to get around, making visiting Juneau a more pleasant experience. Also, the Douglas Causeway will make the west side of Douglas Island vastly more accessible. These lands offer more potential for affordable housing than anywhere else accessible by the road system, and also abut the deep waters of Stephens Passage. Opening up West Douglas is crucial to our town's economic future.

So, what will the Douglas Causeway cost? The current plan estimates some $70 million dollars, an eminently reasonable figure. The plan is to pay for this project locally using 1% additional sales tax revenues. I applaud this way of tackling the problem because it demonstrates self reliance. We have used these sales tax revenues to meet a host of other community needs over the years, and this is a fully appropriate purpose for them. In addition to being ideologically appealing, paying for the Douglas Causeway as a community will prevent any problems arising from placing pressure on State transportation dollars that our community needs for other projects. This will make the Douglas Causeway a win-win proposition.

Building another crossing to Douglas Island will require going over the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge, but when this parcel of land was set aside as habitat for wildlife and waterfowl, it was envisioned that it might someday be crossed by a road or bridge. The city will have to demonstrate the need for the transportation corridor, but the tremendous safety and access benefits the Douglas Causeway will provide will easily enable us as a community to do so. I expect there will be some healthy debate about how to do this project right, but in the end opponents should not be able to stop such a worthy idea from coming to fruition.

If you want to help make the Douglas Causeway a reality, you can sign a petition to place the matter on the municipal election ballot in October. This is an excellent opportunity for all of us in Alaska's Capital City to take an affirmative step to make our community a better, safer, more economically vital place for those who live here now and those who will live here when we're gone.

• Ben Brown is an attorney living in Juneau.

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