With the support of the Juneau Assembly and gubernatorial candidates Fran Ulmer and Frank Murkowski, completion of the environmental impact statement for a road connecting Juneau with the rest of Alaska's highway system could be in the works.
The Juneau Assembly on Tuesday voted 5-4 in favor of a motion urging the state to complete an environmental impact statement and its preferred alternative of a road connecting Juneau and Skagway.
Both gubernatorial candidates support completing the EIS. Murkowski says the road should be built while Ulmer says more information is needed before committing to a plan.
"I have said and do intend if elected governor to complete the EIS," Ulmer said. "Juneau residents want closure on the issue."
Ulmer added, however, that completion of the EIS should consider the safest and most cost-effective route for a proposed road.
"My mind remains open on (building a road)," Ulmer said. "That's what the EIS and a public process is all about."
Murkowski said considering plans other than the preferred alternative of building a road to Skagway would drag out the process and possibly delay construction.
"If you're looking for ways out (of building a road), you substantiate it by simply extending the process by reviewing all potential alternatives," Murkowski said. "We know the road can be built and in my opinion it's pretty hard to make the case that a road is not justified."
Building a road would discourage future attempts to move the capital or Legislature and create better access to the capital city, he added.
The EIS for the road was started in 1994 by the Department of Transportation, but in January 2000 Gov. Tony Knowles blocked $1.5 million needed to complete the process. Citing a lack of public support in the communities of Haines and Skagway, Knowles instead chose to pursue improved ferry service between Juneau, Haines and Skagway.
Although Knowles cut short completion of the EIS, some city officials have tried to persuade the administration to continue the process.
Juneau Mayor Sally Smith voted no on the motion by the Assembly on Monday night, noting there had been no public discussion before the vote. Supporters said there's been plenty of discussion in the past. Smith, however, said she has spoken with Knowles and Ulmer within the last year, urging them to complete the EIS.
"I support completing the EIS, which is why I've spoken to the governor and lieutenant governor," Smith said. "But is it a worthwhile thing to do when we know what the answer is?"
After speaking with Smith, Ulmer said she took the issue to Knowles as well but was unable to persuade him to change his position.
Although unsuccessful in prodding the administration, Smith said she hopes the next governor will complete the EIS.
"I'm assuming both (Ulmer and Murkowski) are interested in completing the EIS," she said, based on comments they've made to her.
Although both candidates have said they support completion of the EIS, Assembly member Randy Wanamaker expressed concern the state would start over with a new study instead of completing the one started in 1994.
"The current EIS is almost done," Wanamaker said. "It's current, it's valid and it's paid."
Wanamaker noted funding to complete the EIS could be appropriated from the city's preapproved capital projects list.
The original EIS could be completed within a year and a half, Wanamaker said, adding that starting over with a new one could stretch the project out for many more years.
Wanamaker's concerns stem from claims by the Knowles administration that the original EIS was flawed. Upon hearing the EIS would not be completed in 2000, Wanamaker wrote Knowles asking how the plan was flawed. He said he never received a response.
Now a member of the Assembly, Wanamaker said he still has a lack of understanding as to how the document is flawed.
Wanamaker also said public opinion is changing on the prospects for a road.
Despite an October 2000 advisory ballot question showing Juneau residents narrowly supporting improved ferry service over construction of a road, Wanamaker contends the road's support remains strong. He said he heard the same thing this year while working at fairs in Tanana, Palmer and Haines to educate voters on the legislative move ballot initiative.
" 'Juneau needs a road' is what I heard everywhere," Wanamaker said.
Acknowledging there always will be a pro-move group, Wanamaker said its numbers will grow smaller if people can drive to the capital.
"I think there will always be people who want to move the capital out of Juneau," Wanamaker said. "But (with a road in place) they will become a small, isolated group."
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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