Empire editorial: It is time to send a strong, unified message to Alaskans

Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2002

The CBJ Assembly's action to support completion of the Juneau Access Environmental Impact Study (EIS) has placed the issue of "the road" squarely on the front burner.

At a time when Juneau should be seeking long-term strategies to fortify its status as the state capital, it is unfortunate that the community is so rudderless when it comes to making the necessary decisions for its greater good.

The notion that road access into Juneau is an issue just for Juneauites to discuss is a bit myopic. The impression widely held throughout the state is that Juneau covetously lays claim to the state's seat of government and all of the trappings that go with it, but arrogantly and selfishly feels it has the right to limit access from the rest of the state.

As Alaska's capital city we must consider the wishes of all Alaskans to have affordable, dependable 24/7/365 access to "their" capital city.

Deputy Mayor Ken Koelsch, along with four other Assembly members, should be commended for their leadership on a monumentally important decision. By a 5 to 4 vote, the Assembly took a proactive role in assuring all Alaskans that Juneau wants them to have better access to their capital.

Over the past month, those responsible for placing the legislative move initiative on the ballot have openly stated that if Juneau had road access, the legislative move initiative would not have happened. This was one factor behind Koelsch's motion.

Mayor Smith and Assembly members Marc Wheeler, Frankie Pillifant and Jim Powell should not have been surprised by the outcome or that the issue was presented now, at a time when Juneau is fighting for its future. Mayor Smith has been a vocal advocate for completion of the Juneau Access EIS, so it is particularly disappointing that she waffled when decisiveness and unity were so sorely needed.

Voting for a motion that supports completion of a nearly finished study that has cost taxpayers over $5 million was the logical and responsible thing to do. Completion of the draft EIS does not mean that a road will be built. Not until a record of decision is rendered will the Lynn Canal road be pursued and then funding must be secured before the first shovel is turned.

Wheeler has promised that the environmental lawsuits will fly if an east-side road route advances. The EIS stands as a valid, thorough, legally defensible document. Wheeler, along with Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, say they support completion of the EIS but want to change the scope of the study. The time to change the scope of the study was back in 1994 when the scoping was done.

Changing the scope of the EIS at this point would essentially cause the whole process to start over again, wasting millions of dollars and resulting in several more years of delays.

It's unfair to characterize the Assembly's action on Monday as lacking in public process. The EIS has been subjected to loads of public process. Where was the public process when Gov. Knowles reversed his decision to support the preferred alternative?

Each of the five Assembly members voting for the motion made it abundantly clear during their election campaigns where they stood on the issue of the road.

They were elected based on their views, and under our representative form of government. They voted true to their colors. In Juneau, sentiment for the road has grown along with the knowledge that road access is an increasingly important component in retaining the capital.

The last road vote unfairly pitted the ferry system against the road. In reality, Juneau needs a stronger ferry system and a road from the north to effectively meet its and Southeast Alaska's transportation needs.

One might view Monday night's 5-4 vote as a proportionate reflection of how a popular vote on the road might play out were it taken today. Add this to the outcome if the following question was asked of voters statewide:

"Do you support construction of a road to the state capital?"

Road access alone will not prevent future move efforts, but it is clear that it will go a long way toward swinging future votes throughout the state in Juneau's favor. These votes will become ever more critical in future elections as the balance of representation continues to shift north with population growth.

The window of opportunity to build a road into Juneau is shrinking. However, the highway appropriation bill now in front of Congress would contribute an additional $140 million a year for six years to Alaska's highway construction projects.

Juneau cannot continue to exist as both the state's capital and a remote outpost. Juneau will survive in only one of these forms over time. It is time for Juneau to send a strong, unified message to the rest of the state that the welcome mat is out!

Don Smith



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