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Douglas Causeway garners questions, favorable response

Posted: Thursday, August 19, 2010

Juneau and Douglas residents mostly aired support for the North Douglas Causeway project Wednesday evening at a presentation by the project's proponents.

The Safe Affordable Future Efficient Committee gave a presentation on the details of the project as part of the Knowledge Industry Network's monthly meetings.

Around 20 people attended the session where Rick Shattuck, SAFE Committee Chairman, gave background and goals of the project.

The causeway is currently proposed to go from the Sunny Point Overpass to the Douglas Highway across the wetlands. Shattuck said the second crossing has been proposed for the past 35 years, and when the wetland refuge was formed it was part of the plan to eventually have a crossing.

Shattuck said the committee favors the Sunny Point option because to them it has the lowest impact on the wetlands - affecting 12 acres of the 4,000 acre refuge, it won't require any condemnation of residences as the causeway begins and ends through city property or setbacks and it has the lowest cost of $70 million.

He said the committee wants it as far up the channel as possible for easy access to the valley or Lemon Creek. Also, they want to minimize any wildlife impact and the Sunny Point location is in the center of the hot points of where birds concentrate at low tide. The project will give space and an access point for people who hunt in the wetlands, and it will include a separate bike/walking path along the causeway.

One of the biggest reasons SAFE is advocating for the project is because of multiple safety aspects. It takes roughly 20 minutes for emergency services to get to the broader population on Douglas Island, Shattuck said.

In the event Egan Drive or the current bridge to Douglas is closed, the second crossing provides an alternate route. Shattuck showed images of the avalanche path that would shut down Egan Drive.

"It's not a matter of if, but when," he said.

Another factor in the desire for the project is economic development. If a business wants to expand, but can't find the space in Juneau, businesses could move elsewhere, Shattuck said. Douglas could offer that space, he said.

Shattuck said the focal point now is securing funds for the project, because after 35 years of studies - and more studies on the horizon - the project has basically stalled due to lack of funding and lack of an ending.

That's why the committee is asking the assembly to put a question to the voters in October on an extension of the 1 percent sales tax specifically for funding the causeway. Shattuck said this project doesn't rank very high on state or national funding scales, and therefore funding isn't likely from those avenues for decades.

He said a lot of concern is coming from the funding element. The concern is that if the citizens approve this allocation, it's going to be the only major project and other projects will face extensive delays.

Shattuck said the issues people raise with that aren't exactly accurate. He noted the city has made it the No. 1 priority and therefore it should come ahead of other projects. However, there are other sales tax elements that, in 2009, accounted for nearly $24 million. The causeway portion would account for $8 million annually, but there would still be funds left for other capital improvement projects.

One citizen was concerned about that approach because she said the project has to go through a permitting process. In that process, a crossing different from the one now presented could be the one approved. She asked if they should call the voters to approve going through the permitting process first.

Shattuck said people don't want to really do any more studies until there is funding and until there is a clear time frame. If they wait much longer to go forward, many of the studies already paid for will expire and those funds will have gone to waste.

Shattuck said if the 1 percent extension - set to expire in 2013 - is extended by voters, that doesn't mean the project goes forward as-is. The project would move forward to the permitting process, and if the project changes too much in terms of cost, design or location the issue would be brought back to the voters.

The tax extension would need to be for 10 more years, Shattuck said, and he hoped there would be language in the measure to say that if the causeway is completed before that time, the voters would decide on what to do with the remainder.

If the causeway gets to the build stage, it would take 3-5 years to complete.

Only one person expressed he didn't want the causeway in that location. He said he lives in the 8500 block on Douglas Highway and he didn't want it in his backyard.

Others asked pointed questions about snow removal, mitigation costs, ongoing maintenance costs, how this project will affect other projects and funding. Most of Shattuck's responses were that the finer details of the project haven't been nailed down yet.

One man asked if they were considering another structure for the bridge portion, as the majority of boats would not be able to fit under the currently proposed crossing. Shattuck said the lowest cost bridge was favored, but not set in stone. He said they figured the sail boats and other vessels going through once or twice a year wasn't necessarily worth the added cost of using other structures.

Another resident asked if there had been any polls of specifically the Douglas residents. Shattuck said there have been, and that Douglas residents generally support it. He figured a 70 percent in favor, 30 percent not in favor ratio.

Of the whole Juneau community polled in 2003, 35 percent strongly supported a second crossing, 28 percent supported and 22 percent were neutral with the remainder not favoring it, Shattuck said.

Shattuck urged people to go to Monday's assembly meeting to pledge their support for the project and tax extension.

• Contact Sarah Day at 523-2279 or sarah.day@juneauempire.com.



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