My Turn: Juneau access road is environmentally best bet

Posted: Thursday, September 08, 2005

There are many valid opinions on either side of the controversial Juneau Access Project. I have a great deal of respect and empathy for those individuals that oppose the road, but I truly believe this road is the most responsible long-term thing we can do for the people of Alaska, and as stewards of our environment. My support of the road has many levels, but today I'd just like to discuss one thing: oil.

I haven't heard any discussion from either side about the immense fuel consumption of the fast ferry Fairweather. This vessel burns more than 700 gallons of diesel fuel per hour, while hauling only 35 vehicles. For one single trip to Skagway at approximately 2.5 hours running time, this vessel burns 1,750 gallons of fuel. Staggering in my opinion. How many vehicles could drive the roughly 100 miles from Auke Bay using 1,750 gallons of fuel? Assuming an average of 15 mpg per vehicle, the 100 miles to Skagway would take just under seven gallons of fuel. That means that 250 vehicles could drive to Skagway for the same amount of fuel, and with far less emissions. That's more than seven times the vehicular capacity for the same amount of fossil fuels being burned. If 35 vehicles drove this corridor, they would consume only 245 gallons of fuel.

What about the foot passengers? The Fairweather specifications indicate that at full capacity it carries 260 foot passengers. Assuming that the average passenger bus carries 52 people, then five busses could carry the same amount of foot passengers to Skagway. Assuming an average of five miles per gallon for a diesel bus, it would take 20 gallons of fuel per bus to get to Skagway. For only 100 gallons of fuel, wheeled mass transit could carry the same amount of passengers along this corridor compared to 1,750 gallons used by the Fairweather. Eighty-seven buses could carry 4,524 people to Skagway using the same 1,750 gallons of fuel that the Fairweather burns in just one trip. That's more than 17 times the passenger capacity for the same amount of fossil fuels being burned.

There will be several hundred thousand gallons of fossil fuels burned to build this road. However, this would be a one time investment. Even if as much as 25 percent of the project cost is expended on fossil fuels, that equates to $75 million at $3 per gallon which equals 2.5 million gallons of fuel. Compared to the Fairweather at 700 gallons per hour gets it 35,714 hours of running time. Estimating seven hours running time per day makes 5,102 days, which translates into 14 years of running time for the same investment in gallons of fossil fuels. In 14 years from the completion date of the road, fossil fuel consumption would be paid in full. How's that for looking out for our next generations?

What does our future hold in the way of energy costs? I don't know, but I'm sure fuel prices will never again be as low as they were just one year ago. That's one more reason to start looking at this road project in a different light. Over the next few years expect to see more and more efficient cars and trucks. Also look for some great deals on used V-10 trucks and monster SUVs. What about our ferry system though? Doubting that we'll ever see nuclear fission powered ferry boats, I don't expect to see a more efficient "blue canoe" anytime soon. In consideration of the efficiency and technology of the vehicles involved, wheeled vehicles stand to greatly increase their fuel efficiency over time while our marine alternative is married to old technology that will unfortunately be prohibitively expensive to retrofit.

As fuel prices rise, just like they've consistently done over the past 20 years, humans will find a more efficient way of getting from point A to point B. Let's get our "roads" out of Lynn Canal and put them on mainland Alaska where they belong.

• Juneau resident Tim Reed is a land surveyor for the state of Alaska.

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