In split decision, Juneau Assembly backs road north

Posted: Tuesday, September 10, 2002

The Juneau Assembly on Monday voted 5-4 in favor of completing a Juneau access study and its preferred alternative - a road into Juneau.

Deputy Mayor Ken Koelsch said he presented the motion at the end of Monday's meeting because of a pending legislative session-move vote and concerns about Juneau's isolation in the days leading up to the anniversary of Sept. 11.

"Hopefully, this sends a message to the state that we do want a road into Juneau," he said.

Alaska voters will consider a ballot proposition in November that would move legislative sessions from Juneau to Anchorage until facilities in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough are available. Koelsch said his decision to put the motion before the Assembly was tied to a recent statements by move proponents that a road to Juneau would allay their concerns.

"If there was a road that went to Juneau, I don't think we'd be having this discussion," Alaskan Independence Party Chairman Mark Chryson told the Empire last month.

But other Assembly members objected to a lack of public notice on the motion. Marc Wheeler said the issue was divisive for the community and asked Koelsch to postpone Monday's action and give people time to comment.

"I don't see a problem with waiting a couple of weeks. Why do we feel we need to do this right now?" he said.

In an effort to reach a compromise, Wheeler offered an amendment that called for the completion of the environmental impact statement and deleted references to a road. The amendment failed in a 5-4 vote.

"We could have agreed last night to move forward with the EIS and that's what I supported, but here were five people more interested in driving wedges than solving problems," Wheeler said today. "It's not helpful to be divided as we go into a capital move fight. We need to be united."

In an October 2000 advisory ballot question, 5,840 Juneau voters supported improved ferry service with 5,761 supporting a road to Skagway. In January 2000, Gov. Tony Knowles chose fast ferries as the solution to transportation problems in the upper Lynn Canal and later vetoed $1.5 million appropriated by the state Legislature to complete the EIS on Juneau access.

Assembly members Koelsch, Randy Wanamaker, Dale Anderson, Don Etheridge and Jeannie Johnson voted for Koelch's motion and against Wheeler's amendment. Members Wheeler, Frankie Pillifant, Jim Powell and Mayor Sally Smith voted against Koelsch's motion and for Wheeler's amendment.

After spending three days at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer earlier this month talking to people about the legislative session move, Johnson said the road is an issue for voters.

"I agree that it's a perception issue," she said. "I feel strongly that we wouldn't be going through this if we had a road."

Powell said he was on the verge of changing his mind and supporting a road after spending four days at the state fair, but wanted more time to consider the issue. He has supported completing the access study.

"We're shooting at each other and we're in the middle of a very important issue and that's what bothers me," he said. "It's just not the right way to do this."

Smith said she thinks the EIS should be completed and has asked Gov. Tony Knowles and Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer for their support in finishing it. She said she voted against Koelsch's motion because of a lack of public process.

"This is making me very, very, very sad. I can't explain how sad," she said. "Public notice is a part of the process and I believe we have a responsibility to support the public process."

Koelsch said his motion wasn't tied to the Oct. 1 city election, as suggested by some Assembly members. Wheeler, Pillifant and Etheridge are running for re-election.

"If it was going to be something like that it would have been brought up a long time ago," Koelsch said. "It's something that has bothered me since I sat at the airport on 9-11 and saw no planes flying, the ferry wasn't going and I'm trying to think how I would get my kids and family out of this town in case there was something headed towards me."

Koelsch said the public has had many opportunities to comment on the issue, and the Assembly's vote would have been split no matter when the issue was considered.

Smith later said she thought the Assembly could have had an unanimous vote on the issue had there been more time.

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.



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