My turn: A Juneau road will close often

Posted: Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Incoming Gov. Sarah Palin's Dec. 19, 2006, transition team report stated that both Department of Transportation employees and the public "expressed grave concern" that DOT priorities - particularly the Juneau/Katzehin road and the Gravina Bridge - had been influenced more by politics than data and need. Many of the same faces at the department continue to push Murkowski's transportation agenda in spite of new data that indicates a Juneau/Katzehin road would be far more expensive and closed far more often than anticipated.

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Murkowski decided to build an east Lynn Canal road long before he landed the governor's office, making it a campaign promise. Then, road cost and closure estimates were made long before DOT ever put a geologist on the ground to evaluate the extreme terrain. In 2006, DOT commissioned Phase I of a geotechnical study conducted by Golder Associates. As a result of this study we now know that the department vastly underestimated the number of land and rock slide areas, and we know that their assessment of "little soil movement" was erroneous. That is, in addition to the 36 identified avalanche paths, rather than six additional geological hazards, the Golder report documented 112. Rather than stable mountainsides with "little soil movement," Golder geologists found three dozen places where debris from unstable slopes is "of sufficient volume to close the highway for several days to weeks" at a time. The department claimed a road would be closed 34 days each winter due to avalanches, but neglected to address year-round closures to clear massive landslides and boulders so large they need blasting apart to move.

While avalanches are somewhat predictable and the road is anticipated to be closed whenever avalanche danger is moderate or greater, the majority of geological hazards identified by Golder are classified as "unpredictable." Either a road would be unpredictable and therefore unsafe, or the state would have to spend a lot more money than anticipated on retaining walls, tunnels (none previously planned by DOT), and other expensive items to ensure the safety of the traveling public.

The fact that DOT canceled this summer's scheduled Phase II of the geotechnical study does not inspire confidence that the problems identified in Palin's transition team report have been addressed. That is, Phase II would have provided design level road realignment, retaining walls, tunnels, snow sheds, etc. A data-driven DOT could have used this information to make realistic cost estimates based on actual rather than imagined terrain.

While Rich Poor imagines joy-riding on a Juneau road to a new ferry terminal ("The joys of a Lynn Canal highway," July 17), those of us who have read the Golder report are concerned about precariously perched car- and house-sized boulders too numerous to be individually marked on Golder's geological map. While Poor fantasizes about being able to drive to a new ferry terminal, and then on to Las Vegas-style gambling at Diamond Tooth Gerties, those of us who are more fiscally responsible question the wisdom of gambling hundreds of millions of dwindling transportation and general fund dollars on an expensive, unnecessary road that will be closed so often that it will require ferry service as a backup. It is indeed ironic that DOT plans to use ferry service backup precisely because ferries are dependable year-round transportation that cannot be stopped by avalanches, rock slides, landslides, blowing snow and glare ice.

Like the jet, this other unnecessary, expensive Murkowski transportation boondoggle needs a fresh, unbiased evaluation driven by data and need, not politics.

• Nancy Berland, of Haines, is an employee of Haines-based Lynn Canal Conservation.

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