I have long believed the future of the capital city depended upon making access to Juneau as easy as possible for all Alaskans. Unlike Fran Ulmer, I have made up my mind and several weeks ago again made clear my support for building a road to Juneau.
In split decision, Juneau Assembly backs road north
For the past eight years the state administration's Juneau Access Project has failed to produce a result. It seems like they will never run out of studies or new alternatives or anything else that can keep them from having to make a decision.
After spending $5 million on a study that selected a highway link on the east side of Lynn Canal as the best option, they still pushed for a fast ferry system that had not been studied. In 2000, the Knowles-Ulmer plan called for improved ferry service in Lynn Canal by 2003, yet there is not a single project in the works that can make that happen. Ironically, I'm told the most damaging aspect of their plan is that, if implemented, it would actually reduce access! Having just reflected on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy, Juneau residents should be concerned about any proposal to further limit access to their city.
Residents of our capital should also not underestimate how important highway access is to Interior Alaskans. This is a very important consideration for many who would move the capital and/or the Legislature out of Juneau. Recent statements made by the proponents of Ballot Measure 2 to move the legislative sessions strongly suggest if there was road access to Juneau the question would not be on the ballot this year. As a candidate for governor, I have been straightforward and firm in my opposition to this ballot measure, in part because I am firmly committed as your next governor to seeing the Juneau road started and completed.
I know it was difficult, but I congratulate the Juneau Assembly for adopting a resolution to support an East Lynn Canal highway link to Juneau. Alaskans want a road into their capital - a capital all Alaskans are justifiably proud of. The Assembly's action demonstrates Juneau's commitment to being an outstanding capital city. The benefits of a road don't stop at Juneau. I believe it would bring increased economic activity to Haines and Skagway. As governor I will work hard to make that happen.
At a time when we need to be tightening our belt we cannot ignore the fact that it simply makes economic sense to rely on lower-cost roads instead of ferries. Last year, the state spent $142 million to maintain and operate its surface transportation systems. That amount includes $57 million, 40 percent, for highways and $85 million, 60 percent, for the marine highway system, even though 99.6 percent of the miles driven annually in Alaska are on the highways and only 0.4 percent on the marine highway.
So we are spending 60 percent of our state highway operating budget on a system that provides less than one-half of 1 percent of our travel needs, mostly in a region that has 12 percent of the population. State and federal gas taxes, licensing and registration fees generate $168 million while the marine highway system generates $37 million from fares and onboard services. When you look at these numbers the benefits of replacing any ferry route with a road - and the need to do so quickly - become obvious.
I support the Alaska Marine Highway and want to make it more responsive to our coastal communities. I was raised in Ketchikan and lived in Sitka, Wrangell and Juneau, so I understand the ferry system should serve the communities and not the government bureaucracy. I know what it is like to live in Wrangell with small children and to depend on the ferry system.
That is why I will listen closely to ferry system reforms proposed by the Southeast Conference. Running the ferry system more like the Alaska Railroad and making sure our coastal communities are represented on its board makes a lot of sense to me. Recently the state official who oversees the Marine Highway System was quoted in this paper saying that, "(t)he method of administration of the marine highway is not a significant element in its success." I just don't buy this view of the current administration that how the ferry system is managed has nothing to do with how well it operates, and neither should you.
I know we can do better than the status quo and that's why I'm running for governor.
Frank Murkowski has served in the U.S. Senate for 22 years, and is the Republican nominee for governor in the Nov. 5 statewide election.