My Turn: Road issue deserves scientific analysis

Posted: Sunday, September 15, 2002

The Juneau Assembly's vote concerning the road has apparently stirred up the hornet's nest if letters to the editor are any indication.

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Dissent and dissatisfaction with the Assembly seem to run along three lines - lack of citizen input, the appearance of pandering to pro-capital move interests, and disregard of the vote taken in 2000. All miss the point. The Assembly is a representative political body; members are elected to speak for us, the constituents. We vote for the person who best represents our preferences and hope for the best. The U.S. Congress passes many resolutions each session, but public hearings are not held to determine which resolutions should pass. The claim of pandering is simply disingenuous. Everyone knows that construction of a road will not lead to greater citizen involvement in the governmental affairs of the state. I lived 10 minutes from the Colorado state capital and did not attend a single legislative hearing.

A slim majority of the vote taken in 2000 did not support a road. It is important to note that those who voted on the issue do not necessarily represent the population. The voters constitute a sample of the population. It is very likely that there is no statistical difference in the vote, and inferences to the population as a whole simply cannot not be made. Furthermore, the voting mechanism does not necessarily produce an outcome that is optimal with regard to the provision of a public good, such as the road.

I view the Assembly's vote as a request to gather the facts concerning how a road might impact Juneau and, perhaps, Southeast Alaska as a region. I commend that. There is no doubt that a road will change things around here. A road will bring both good and bad things to Southeast. The scientific approach to studying the issue involves benefit-cost analysis, a tool of welfare economics which examines the desirability of alternative economic states of the world. I am ahead of schedule in my Principles of Macroeconomics class, so I decided to use valuable class time to analyze an important, real-world issue from an economic perspective. Students were queried on potential costs and benefits of a road. This is what they came up with on the cost side:

• construction and maintenance costs.

• increased tourism that leads to more congestion.

• increased crime and related, undesirable activities.

• loss of AMHS jobs.

• undesirable impacts on Haines and Skagway.

• environmental impacts that cannot be mitigated.

This is what they came up with on the benefit side:

• construction and maintenance jobs.

• increased tourism and related increases in personal income and ad valorem sales tax revenues.

• reduced travel costs (monetary and non-monetary).

• increased commerce.

• improved recreational access in Lynn Canal.

• perceptions of accessibility.

I am not about to assert that this list is exhaustive or that any particular item is necessarily relevant. However, the benefits and costs of a road as perceived by my students are numerous and varied and should be analyzed in a systematic fashion. The public scoping process of any EIS is designed to seek input from the affected population. Should the road be subjected to an unbiased and methodologically sound EIS, the list of benefits and costs will no doubt change in accordance with the public's perceptions.

It is critically important to keep in mind that value is subjective. I asked students to vote on the road issue, and in discussions that followed it was abundantly clear that people have different values. For some, the possibility for increased crime and deleterious environmental impacts far outweighed the reduction in travel costs; the opposite held for others. The point is that the EIS process is designed to systematically gather and analyze this important information, all the while recognizing and respecting different relative values that people attach to the project's benefits and costs. I advocate neither for nor against the road. Instead, I advocate for a sound, scientific process that analyzes the states of the world with and without the road.

Ashley Ahrens, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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