Six public-interest and conservation agencies filed a lawsuit Wednesday morning in U.S. District Court in an attempt to get federal agencies to look again at options besides building a road out of Juneau.
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Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Skagway Marine Access Commission, Lynn Canal Conservation, Alaska Public Interest Research Group, Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed the lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Forest Service.
"We have brought this suit because the state administration has not listened to the people of Haines, Skagway and Juneau, who have consistently placed strengthening the Marine Highway System above any other means of transportation for Southeast and because this project would rob funds from many local and statewide transportation projects," SEACC Executive Director Russell Heath said.
"The remedy that we are seeking ultimately is to have the agencies fully and fairly consider better ways to improve transportation in Lynn Canal," said Michael LeVine, an Earthjustice lawyer representing the plaintiffs.
The state is more disappointed than frustrated that the groups have chosen a lawsuit as a means to address their concerns, said Mary Siroky, a special assistant to the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
"We don't feel a lawsuit is an effective use of time or resources - theirs or ours," Siroky said.
The state has proposed extending Glacier Highway 51 miles north from Echo Cove up the east side of Lynn Canal to a shuttle ferry terminal just north of the Katzehin River. The project is expected to cost $258 million dollars, according to the state.
LeVine said the group is not seeking an injunction because contract bids have not yet been awarded for construction.
"We think that the (environmental impact statement) and all of the analysis that the agencies conducted is flawed and we are asking the court to require the agencies to redo that analysis," he said.
LeVine said the agencies failed to consider a full range of alternatives, had inadequate analysis of the road's affects on wildlife, and made a biased decision by using flawed data.
Siroky said the analysis was ongoing for a dozen years and the state has received a tremendous amount of public input.
"DOT is very confident that the environmental impact statement that we prepared is thorough, it's well done, it's looked at all the alternatives and we feel it will withstand any scrutiny from a legal perspective," she said.
The groups used the support of several local leaders from the northern Lynn Canal communities at its Wednesday morning press conference to bring attention to the issue. Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, Skagway Mayor Tim Bourcy, and Haines Assembly member Stephanie Scott spoke against the road. All said, however, they were speaking on their own behalf and not representing their cities or public offices.
"I have long been troubled by the current administration's single-minded pursuit of the Juneau Access project," Botelho said.
He said he is not arguing the importance of access to Juneau, but that the aging ferry system is being neglected and could provide adequate access to the capital if given the opportunity.
"Even serious-minded road advocates have recognized the need for maintenance of a healthy system that includes Lynn Canal," Botelho said.
Also, Botelho said the road would not be as economically promising to the future of the city as building a second crossing of Gastineau Channel to enable the development of North Douglas.
Siroky said the Juneau access project would not hamper the decision to build the second crossing.
Scott said the erosion of ferry service in Lynn Canal could lead to health and safety risks for the residents of Haines.
"Dangerous road conditions and dangerous flying conditions often go hand-in-hand, leaving us with one reliable link - the Alaska Marine Highway," she said.
Juneau resident Dick Knapp, a former Department of Transportation commissioner, said the issue of building a road has become blurred.
"This issue has been permitted to deteriorate into 'road versus ferry' and that's not what it is," he said.
Knapp said the ferry system is continuing to become more expensive to operate and this year is taking up $90 million dollars of state funds that could be used for other needs, such as education or sanitation. He said 90 percent of the money to construct the road would be federal dollars.
"The road is precisely a reason and a rational for improving the ferry system by using their forces more effectively," Knapp said.
Bourcy, of Skagway, said the state has failed to maintain the ferry and road infrastructure it has, so is doesn't make sense to build another road that will cost more money to maintain.
"We say that the road is all about access," he said. "We have access to Juneau. The problem with the access that we have to Juneau is we have inept management within the ferry system and until that changes it will never be better."
Siroky said she doesn't believe the lawsuit will hamper the construction of the road in the near future.
"We're confident that the work is technically accurate and thorough, so this shouldn't slow us down at all," she said.
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