When the proposed Juneau road comes up, just about everyone has a passionate opinion.
To make a good decision, however, we must look past our passions to the facts of the case and ask what is the best approach for providing transportation in the Lynn Canal.
The state tells us that the purpose of the Juneau Access project is to reduce travel times, reduce costs to the state and user and improve the opportunity to travel. Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation's new 50-mile road to nowhere is an enormous expenditure that fails to meet those goals.
With the current ferry system, a passenger can hop aboard the Fairweather in Juneau and arrive in Haines more than two and a half hours later. It's safe and predictable, not to mention comfortable, scenic, and dare I say, enjoyable. Under the State's new preferred alternative, a road to the Katzehin River delta with shuttle service to Skagway and Haines, the state estimates it would take the same amount of time to reach Haines under the very best conditions.
That's assuming that after making the 90-mile drive from downtown Juneau, a shuttle ferry will be waiting and ready for you. With just a handful of runs each day, chances are you'll have to wait a while. The ferries will run on a first-come, first-serve basis, so forget about making a reservation. Even if there is a boat in port when you arrive at the terminal, it could quickly fill with RVs waiting in line in front of you.
Of course, it all depends if the road is even open. Even without the last 18 miles of pavement to Skagway, the state estimates that avalanche dangers would keep the road closed for more than a month each year.
One could hardly call this plan convenient. Nor is it cost effective. The Department of Transportation estimates that the new plan will actually cost the state roughly 45 percent more than the existing ferry system to maintain and operate over the long run.
How can this be? Rich Poor and other road advocates claim that the state will save money with the new proposal. Mr. Poor and his friends, however, have failed to paint the full picture. When long-term (30-year) operation and maintenance costs as well as revenue from the ferries are considered, the state estimates that it will cost $88 million to maintain and operate the Katzehin alternative compared to $61 million to keep the ferry system running. The state actually saves $27 million by opting for the existing ferry system. That's general-fund money that could be spent on building new schools or paying teachers instead of a road to nowhere.
All of these operating costs come on top of the construction costs, which will likely be paid with federal funds. Despite the federal government's excessive expenditures in Alaska, this is not an infinite source of funding. In fact, the state has said that it will have to delay or eliminate transportation projects along the Glenn, Seward, Richardson and Alaska Highways, as well as Egan Drive and other major roadways, to fund the proposed Juneau Road. Killing plans to fill potholes, widen lanes and repair unsafe bridges in other areas of the state to build a highly controversial road from Juneau to nowhere hardly seems like a way to ingratiate the capital city with the rest of the state.
Yes, the Katzehin Road may be cheaper for those already traveling with a vehicle. For the 45 percent of passengers who travel the Lynn Canal without a vehicle, it will undoubtedly be more expensive to drive or take a cab. We can, however, come up with more creative ways to make travel in Lynn Canal more affordable for everyone. For example, ferry system commissioner Robin Taylor has recently shown that cutting ferry fares can not only make travel more affordable, but also increase ridership.
The proposed Katzehin alternative has been billed as a compromise. Patching together bits and pieces of bad ideas together is not a compromise, it's a pile-up. Spending hundreds of millions of scarce transportation dollars for a less convenient, less predictable, more costly transportation system is a lose-lose situation for all.
Emily Ferry is the coordinator of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, a statewide ad-hoc coalition that advocates for sensible transportation spending.