Mayor revives road debate

Smith calls for completion of study on environmental impacts

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Mayor Sally Smith confirmed Tuesday that she has asked Gov. Tony Knowles to support completion of an environmental impact statement on Juneau access, a necessary step before a road could be built to Skagway.

But so far, the governor isn't budging.

Smith is concerned about a statewide poll in favor of moving legislative sessions to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and also about the role that the issue of capital access might play in the debate on the pending ballot initiative.

She said that completing the EIS doesn't necessarily mean supporting the state Department of Transportation's official preferred alternative in the 1997 draft document: a 65-mile road from Echo Cove to Skagway.

Although she won election last year without supporting the road, Smith said she's keeping an open mind.

"I want what's best for Juneau in keeping the capital here, whatever that turns out to be," she said in an interview. "I would have to go for the greater good. That's my charge."

In January 2000, Knowles chose fast ferries as the solution to transportation problems in the upper Lynn Canal. He later vetoed $1.5 million appropriated by the Legislature to complete the EIS on Juneau access, which already had cost $5.1 million.

When an advisory question was placed on the Juneau municipal ballot of October 2000 asking residents if they preferred a road or better ferry service, Knowles spoke publicly against the road option. Voters narrowly chose improved ferry service.

"At this stage, the governor's not inclined to change his mind," said Knowles spokesman Bob King.

Smith said she and Clark Gruening met with Knowles about two weeks ago. Gruening, a former legislator and Juneau's lobbyist at the Capitol, is a driving force in the Alaska Committee, the city-funded group that works to retain the capital.

King said Knowles is open to hearing from city officials on the EIS again but finds strong reasons not to support the road. At nearly $300 million, King said, it would forestall other transportation projects throughout the state. Also, environmentalists could be expected to tie it up in lawsuits for a decade, he said.

Furthermore, King said a road to Skagway wouldn't stifle the effort to move the Legislature or the capital.

"I fundamentally still believe that access to the capital is more vastly improved by the information highway than by the national highway system," he said. "I don't think the proponents of this effort would be mollified by a road 10 years down, or even today, to be honest."

Juneau Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jamie Parsons, who lost the mayoral election to Smith, said that "the governor has to be convinced" otherwise.

"I think it's critical we begin working on a game plan," Parsons said.

The Alaska Committee will do that Thursday evening, said former Mayor Dennis Egan. The group will discuss strategies for fighting the legislative-move effort, and the EIS and the road are on the agenda, Egan said.

Among a handful of Juneau Assembly members contacted by the Empire, only environmentalist Marc Wheeler spoke against revisiting the issue. "I thought we had an election on the issue."

Ken Koelsch said that it was a mistake to pit the road and ferry improvements against each other. "All of us are for a better ferry system."

Finishing the EIS won't necessarily create momentum for a road, Smith said. For example, more information about winter hazards might demonstrate that not many constituents would be driving to legislative sessions anyway, she said.

As a former member of the House from Fairbanks, Smith said legislators are more attentive to well-written constituent letters than to public hearing testimony, so there is already adequate access to legislators. But a complete EIS will send a positive message to the rest of the state, she said. "I think we do have open minds."

Ferry options for Lynn Canal and the northern panhandle will be discussed in a public meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday in Centennial Hall. The McDowell Group, a Juneau-based research and consulting firm, is conducting a study for DOT.

Meanwhile, the assembly's Planning and Policy Committee is funding a study on Capitol space and parking through the Alaska Committee.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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