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North Douglas Crossing will be on Oct. 5 ballot

Posted: Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Juneau's citizens will be weighing in on the 1 percent sales tax extension for the North Douglas crossing project in October.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly passed an ordinance 7-2 Monday night after hearing testimony of 16 residents. More than 60 Juneauites attended. Assemblymen David Stone, Merrill Sanford, Randy Wanamaker, Jonathan Anderson, Jeff Bush, Johan Dybdahl, and Assemblywoman Ruth Danner voted in favor, with Assemblyman Bob Doll and Mayor Bruce Botelho dissenting.

Residents were divided in the measure. Of those who spoke, nine were not in favor of the ordinance as written, one in the middle and six in favor. Those who were not in favor either didn't agree with the language naming the Sunny Point location as the favored project or they disagreed with the designation of the tax for 10 years.

Resident Ron Somerville said he's not opposed to a north crossing; however, he said a 2007 study stated the preferred alternative is the Vanderbilt Hill location. Somerville supports that route, but also noted that the project is going to cost more than the estimated $70 million.

"To try to tell the public that, you're duping them," he said. "I'm sorry but you're duping them. You're going to have to elevate it."

Somerville also wasn't sold on the causeway idea being proposed by the Safe, Affordable, Future, Efficient Committee, citing hydrological issues. He said SAFE is doing a good job at working with the north crossing, but there are some issues needing to be addressed. He also said the public needs more time to make a decision on this because the permitting process isn't done.

"To expect them to vote in October on this ordinance is insane," he said. "Why do that? An Assembly's never done this before. The public is not going to have enough information to make a decision."

Anderson asked if he was aware that even though the ordinance specifies the Sunny Point location, that doesn't mean it would be built there.

"Isn't that kind of stupid to do that?" Somerville asked. "Why imply at all that you're approving that in this initial draft. All you're doing is confusing the public."

Resident Alan Munro felt the tax is a burden on the poor and middle class more aggressively than the well to do. He called the north crossing project a want, not a need and redundant. Munro wanted to see the funds spent on low-income housing, docks and harbors maintenance, more efficient public transportation and improved waste management.

Munro's final point was one several others shared: the crossing as a causeway would negatively impact the wildlife refuge because it will restrict the flow of water which will affect minor wildlife that other wildlife - such as birds - feed on.

SAFE Chairman Rick Shattuck urged the assembly to pass the ordinance. He said over Gold Rush Days SAFE obtained more than 650 signatures in support of putting the question on the ballot. He noted a $35 million cost difference between Sunny Point and Vanderbilt Hill.

Sanford asked for a show of hands from the crowd of how many supported the ordinance. Roughly half raised their hands.

Wayne Regelin, president of Territorial Sportsmen, said the group doesn't oppose a second crossing; however they have concerns about the impact on the wildlife refuge if built at Sunny Point. He said it has serious potential to affect tide flow and could affect waterfowl hunting.

Resident Elena Hesson said there's a need for the crossing for long-term economic development and wanted to see the measure on the ballot.

Resident Murray Walsh said a lot of the concerns people shared could be dealt with in the process.

"There's a lot of process yet to go," he said. "It sends a great message to the state about Juneau's willingness to do things itself."

Steve Zimmerman sided with Mayor Botelho - who wrote a letter opposed to the measure at this time. He agreed that placing the measure on the ballot three years ahead of the tax's expiration was imprudent and should be addressed in a year or two when more is known about the project specifics and what other projects the city may have to do.

Zimmerman said the Vanderbilt option would be 4,200 feet, affecting 8.3 acres, according to a study, while Sunny Point would be 7,200 feet affecting 18.5 acres. He said a Sunny Point crossing won't happen.

Mark Schwan, with the Juneau Audubon Society said the group is opposed because of the preselected route and cost.

Brian Holst, with the Economic Development Commission, encouraged the assembly to put it on the ballot, citing a vision for the long-term future growth of the community. He noted the timing was up to the assembly, however it is a project he believes would be a positive change for the community.

John Tillinghast said he is opposed to the ordinance because it's unconstitutional. He said the state constitution prohibits the use of a referendum to allocate funds in this way. He said it's up to the Assembly to make that decision.

Tillinghast also felt that the project is not a proper use of the city treasury and suggested that if they were to go forward, they would seek multiple avenues of funding sources so it wouldn't hinder projects like were completed under the current tax. As a lawyer, he noted that the language is ambiguous in the ordinance and said that's when lawyers see lawsuits.

"The ballot language here is so sloppy no one can figure out what they're committing themselves to," he said.

Ernie Mueller thought it was interesting several people were quoting the 1984 study of the second crossing, since he was on the study team back then. He said the suggestions that came out of that study were to complete an environmental impact statement and preliminary engineering for the project. Those haven't been done. He said the assembly should complete those before moving forward.

Mueller also was concerned about the cost estimate, noting other projects that went up by several million dollars before completion. He suggested that rather than tying up the sales tax, they city should set aside a $5 million to $10 million and get a joint agreement with the state.

"Go to the DOT and say, 'We've got some money to work with you,'" he said.

Doll was the only assembly member to oppose the measure (aside from Botelho's prior letter). Doll said he is in favor of a second crossing, but he didn't want to see it solely funded through the temporary sales tax. He also suggested researching more of what the "opportunity costs" are - meaning other opportunities to do projects that the city won't have funds to do for 10 years. He felt there should be a list of projects that won't get done, or will get limited funding during the causeway project.

Bush and Anderson said they were in favor of seeing it on the ballot because then they would know for sure if the public supports the project and if it should be funded this way.

Other action the assembly took Monday included:

• Approval, by an 8-1 count, $18.7 million in general obligation bonds for renovations at the Auke Bay Elementary school.

• Unanimous approval of $1.6 million to the Bartlett Regional Hospital for a fiscal year 2010 operating budget shortfall.

• 8-1 approval of increasing rates for water and wastewater services.

More information on those action items will be featured in an article in Wednesday's Empire.

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



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