Haines swimmer opens dialog on Juneau road

Posted: Thursday, July 28, 2005

Rebecca Braun

One of my more eccentric college friends decided to drive a table across the country after he graduated. Not a truck with a table inside - Reuben wanted to turn a table into a moving vehicle. He wanted to get to know America and reasoned that since the most thoughtful, open dialog seemed to take place as people sat around a table together, he'd turn a table into a car and bring it with him.

Over a period of months he managed to cut a beleaguered vehicle in half, replace its interior with a table, solder it back together and get the thing to move down a highway. He even managed to talk his way out of California with the unlicensed vehicle-turned-table. But somewhere in Nevada he abandoned the project, disheartened that the conversations he struck up were invariably the same. They were about the table and himself: how he made it, why he made it, what kind of nut was he, anyway.

I thought of Reuben when I met Steve Vick, the Haines guy who plans to swim from Skagway to Juneau to protest the proposed Lynn Canal road. Steve seems to possess the same quirky mind and fierce determination about an unconventional project. I wondered if Steve's project - born from his desire to focus attention on the road - had dragged him into repetitious conversations about his wetsuit, his hypothermia, his training regimen, his fear of orcas.

Steve came to my house last week to visit with a group of runner-eaters gathered at our weekly running potluck, and after the orca-wetsuit-training stuff we delved into Juneau's perennial debate. While most of us leaned, to varying degrees, against the road, one friend was solidly but not stridently for it.

He said he'd like to be able to take his family to Whitehorse more often and could do so if it were cheaper and faster to get there. We went around on the access arguments: Would the state really do what it takes to keep the road open and safe through the winter? And what will the toll be? If you have to deal with feeder ferries along the way, what's the point? Why do legislators balk about subsidizing our marine highway but think nothing of paying for road maintenance?

The road will make Juneau more affordable in other ways, my friend argued. We need to open up land to build more housing so young people can afford to stay. And the road will lower shipping costs and everything from a gallon of milk to a two-by-four will be more reasonably priced. It was hard to dispute that.

But when my friend said we need to create more jobs, I said, wait a minute. Do we need more housing or more jobs? If it's housing we need, more jobs won't help - they'll just bring more people to town needing more housing.

We need more people, he said. He argued, logically enough, that Juneau's cost of living will come down as we grow: More businesses will set up shop here and the competition will lead to cheaper goods and services.

So maybe a gallon of milk will cost a dollar less, some of us said, but if the trade-off is living in a different town - a town with more traffic, more sprawl, more strangers - I'll pay.

On the other hand, I'm fortunate to be able to afford a house - and milk - at Juneau's current prices. For many people an increase in the opacity of our air or the number of RVs clogging our streets would be a fine trade for a cheaper washing machine and groceries. I get it; I love Costco, too.

How does one weigh dollars against a community's character? What is the proper balance between change and continuity, between money and other - too often ignored - measures of quality of life?

As we explored these questions, I realized it was, sadly, a rare discussion on the road or any development issue - thoughtful and probing, yet devoid of vitriol and judgment. Most conversations follow two tracks: When we're talking with those who agree with us, we just congratulate ourselves about how right we are; with those whose views differ, we either stridently declare how wrong they are or don't bother to communicate at all.

So thank you, Steve, for pursuing your quirky vision, and for bringing out the kind of conversation Reuben hoped his table would engender. Here's wishing you a safe swim.

• Rebecca Braun is a Juneau resident and co-editor of the Alaska Budget Report. Her e-mail address is rbraun@alaska.com. Steve Vick plans to begin his swim on Aug. 1. More information about the swim is at http://www.lynnswim.org.

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