A bit of reality

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2010

This article is about the Sunny Point to Douglas Island Causeway. After reading articles about this project, some clarification is necessary.

First, there is a reason why Juneau citizens are paying about $2,500 per person for the causeway instead of getting federal money to do it. It's because the project has not been placed on the state's list of transportation priorities. To get into this list you have to have enough traffic demand to justify the project. Traffic demand is not only based on a current traffic analysis, it is also based on future population estimates.

In past analysis, the estimates have always been overestimated. For example the 1984 study for a second bridge had a population estimate of 170,000 citizens by 2035. Another estimate had 80,000 by 2005. Juneau's current population has been stable and in the 30,000 range for years. The point is the causeway is a classic "build it and hope they will come" project that can't be funded by the Federal Highway Administration. So citizens of Juneau, take a good grip your wallet, because a lot of money is going to slide out of it if a second crossing is voted for.

The stated rationale for having a causeway go from Sunny Point to Douglas Island is to bring down the cost of the second crossing. But this will be at the expense of the environment and this cost is very significant. A causeway will have significant impacts on the hydrological functions, i. e. the flow of the water, within the refuge. When you mess with the hydrology of a wetland, a chain reaction of environmental harm can be set off. An impact on fish spawning has an impact on birds and the fish that prey on the juvenile fish, and this has an impact on the many species that prey on the fish and birds, including us.

Unlike what Rich Shattuck was quoted as saying in an Aug. 19 Juneau Empire article ("Douglas Causeway garners questions, favorable response"), the Sunny Point alternative will not have the least harm to the environment of all the alternatives.

If a crossing is to be built, there is a viable alternative that has less impact on the wildlife refuge. It is a bridge, not a causeway, that would cross the channel from Salmon Creek to Douglas. It crosses at the narrowest point of Gastineau Channel and would only encroach on the boundaries of the refuge by about 20 feet. It also provides that once-in-a-century need for a second access to the hospital, indeed, very quick access because Salmon Creek is next door to it. A May, 2005 project summary report also indicated it would be the least costly alternative and the least environmentally harmful alternative. The Salmon Creek alternative was removed from the project proposal in what in legal terms is called an arbitrary and capricious manner, at the request of the Juneau Assembly.

Because this project connects one federal funded road to another, an Environmental Impact Statement, with a full range of alternatives, will have to be done, and this is expensive. Because the project is not funded by the FHA, Juneau taxpayers will be paying for the EIS and other permitting processes. When the costs add up, the stated $70 million for the causeway seems to be very much underestimated. Another major permitting process is called 4(f), named after the section of the U.S. Department of Transportation Act of 1966 which establishes it. This is where the FHA gets involved. Under the act, because a second crossing goes through a refuge, it has to be approved by FHA. To get approved there has to be no other better and reasonable alternative. Sunny Point does not meet this requirement. It has been said that the state legislation that made the refuge allows a second crossing. In a way it did, but the legislation said, only if "there is a superior public need" for such a project.

If we really want to use sales tax money efficiently, we should not vote for any "build it and maybe they will come" second crossing, but especially when it's from Sunny Point.

Rorick is a citizen of Juneau and has been since 1972.

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