My Turn: State uses misleading rhetoric in road debate

Posted: Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Nothing pains me more than seeing large organizations play the role of David in an effort to make their opponents seem the Goliath. This attempted reversal was exemplified by Malcolm Menzies, director of the Southeast Region for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, in his portrayal of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council as mammoth organizations directed by "outside" interests (My Turn, Aug. 29).

I am sure no one will dispute that, when it comes to budgets, DOT's far surpasses any local nonprofit group. And as far as "outside" money is concerned, DOT gets plenty of that straight from the federal treasury. Consider that for every $1 Alaskans pay into the gas tax, we get $7 back. DOT then uses this money to build roads for "outside" companies. Most recently, DOT proposed spending $29 million on a road for the Donlin Creek Mine near Bethel for the sole benefit of two corporations based out of Vancouver, Canada. So, why can't "multibillion-dollar outside groups" build their own roads? DOT should watch whom they point their finger at when talking about being influenced by "outside" interest?

But, I won't go into a DOT comparison with Goliath. Instead, I'd like to focus on the misrepresentation of facts by the administration (in this case DOT) in an attempt to mislead the public.

In the past, DOT has demonstrated great aptitude for underestimating the cost of controversial construction projects. For example, the one-mile Third Avenue bypass in Ketchikan, which traversed a 400-foot-wide avalanche path, was estimated at $10 million in 2004. But by the project's completion, the total cost grew to more than $27 million. Then there is the Whittier Tunnel. The estimated cost was $49.8 million. Though once completed, the tunnel's total cost was $80 million.

So, how can DOT be so far off on its estimates?

Let's use the proposed Juneau road as an example. In the supplemental draft of the environmental impact statement, DOT estimates the road will cost $250 million. But this estimate is based on data from 2003 or older. Since then, asphalt, steel, fuel and construction cost have gone up at least 30 to 40 percent. Also, a notable exclusion from the DOT's SDEIS is a geotechnical study to determine how much substrate exists in the upper Lynn Canal. In other words, they don't know how much rock has to be excavated in order to build the road. These factors together, not to mention other absent studies, will send this boondoggle to the $500 million mark in no time.

The American Society of Civil Engineers Report Card for America's Infrastructure found that 33 percent of Alaska's roads are in poor condition and 30 percent of Alaska's bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Due to inadequate road maintenance, Alaska motorists spend $102 million a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs, that's $212 per motorist. The ASCE also reports that the Alaska DOT estimates its maintenance needs are underfunded by at least $40 million annually. Wouldn't it be more economical, not to mention safer, to invest the $250 million in repairing our dilapidated roads and bridges?

Speaking of safety, Menzies went to great lengths to assure us that the proposed Juneau road would actually "be safer than the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood." But, the SDEIS clearly states that the proposed Juneau Road would be closed more than 30 days a year due to bad weather and avalanches. In contrast, the Seward Highway is closed an average of five days a year for approximately four hours at a time.

Why all the misleading rhetoric from DOT? It would seem they are following a political agenda that has nothing to do with the facts, nor public interest. As DOT Regional Director Gary Paxton bluntly said, "We need people who don't understand to get out of the way." But many Alaskans can't unquestionably "get out of the way." This is why there is an Alaska Transportation Priorities Project in the first place. In the face of a Goliath like DOT, Alaska needs as many Davids as we can get.

• Haines resident Steve Vick recently swam 92 miles from Skagway to Juneau to protest the proposed Juneau road.

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