Ninth Circuit to hear road appeal

Posted: Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The state of Alaska is trying to resurrect the Juneau Access Project, a nearly half-billion dollar road from Juneau north toward Skagway along Lynn Canal, in a U.S. Court of Appeals challenge to a lower court ruling that blocked the project.

After nearly a year and a half of pre-trial motions and arguments, the case is scheduled to be argued in Anchorage on July 26 before a panel of judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles appeals of district court decisions for the western United States

The challenge to the road project was brought by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and other environmental groups, who were represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

In February of last year, Judge John Sedwick blocked the permits for the project, saying the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities had failed to consider using existing ferries to improve transportation in Lynn Canal.

The road project would extend the road north of Juneau for 50.9 miles along the shore to the Katzehin River, where a new ferry terminal would connect travelers with Haines and Skagway.

The most recent cost estimates for the project were done in 2009, and came to $470 million. No 2010 cost estimate was done because Sedwick's ruling overturned the project's approval, said DOT project manager Reuben Yost.

The Alaska Department of Law appealed that ruling, and says Sedwick erred in siding with SEACC's view that the state should have considered providing better service to Lynn Canal with additional ferries. There were no additional ferries that could have been used to provide more service without cutting service elsewhere, the department contested.

"SEACC's proposed alternative depends upon the use of ferries that are unavailable for service in Lynn Canal," argued Sean Lynch, an assistant attorney general representing the departments. He will argue the appeal in Anchorage.

The Juneau Access Project's Environmental Impact Statement, required because of the project's federal funding, compared a variety of different ways to improve transportation in Lynn Canal, the formal reason for the project.

Among the alternatives looked at were various combinations of roads and ferries, including up the west side of Lynn Canal and the eventual road project, which went up Lynn Canal's east side.

Lynch wrote that adding service would require unacceptable changes such as reducing service to Sitka or continuing the use of decommissioned vessels.

Earthjustice attorney Kate Glover, though, said that reassigning boats from other parts of the ferry system was one suggestion SEACC made. They also suggested consideration of improving service by scheduling boats at more convenient times, reducing fares or increasing the frequency of trips.

"We think Judge Sedwick made a great decision," said Glover, who will argue the appeal before the Ninth Circuit.

Glover said she expects a decision within three to six months.

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



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