Juneau Access among top DOT projects

New road proposals require rewrite of Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan

Posted: Wednesday, September 17, 2003

HAINES - The state Department of Transportation laid out plans for dozens of new roads in Southeast Tuesday, putting the Juneau Access project among its top projects.

Tom Briggs, deputy commissioner for the Department of Transportation, Gary Paxton, DOT's Southeast region director, and Capt. George Capacci, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System, laid out the new transportation plans at the 46th annual meeting of the Southeast Conference.

The Southeast Conference is a coalition of community and governmental organizations that advocate for economic development in Southeast.

"Transportation in Alaska is not just marine transportation," Briggs told attendees at Haines' Chilkat Center for the Arts. "It's not just air transportation. It's not just surface transportation. It's all these things and so much more."

But since the election of Gov. Frank Murkowski, DOT's emphasis has shifted to road construction rather than putting more money into the Alaska Marine Highway, which provides ferry access to panhandle communities.

Briggs said DOT, with the help of Southeast Conference, is revising the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, a long-range plan developed in the late '90s to provide reliable transportation in Southeast.

He said a draft version of the revised plan is expected to be completed by January, in time for approval by the Legislature.

Top proposed projects in Southeast include the Juneau Access project, the Gravina Bridge project and the Bradfield Canal Project.

• The Gravina Bridge project would provide access from Ketchikan to a nearby airport located on Gravina Island. The project would include two bridges, one from Ketchikan to Pennock Island and another from Pennock Island to Gravina.

The project is expected to cost about $244 million, according to DOT.

• DOT is completing the environmental impact statement for the Juneau Access project, which is reviewing a variety of options to provide better access between Juneau, Haines and Skagway. Briggs described the project as a road from Juneau to Skagway. DOT has estimated that the project could cost about $300 million, but some argue that it could cost more.

A shuttle ferry would provide access between the communities of Haines and Skagway, Briggs said.

"By reducing the water miles of the Marine Highway System in Southeast by 25 percent, this project will free up vessels and provide more frequent port calls to other Southeast communities," Briggs said.

• The Bradfield Canal project near Wrangell would link Alaska to the Cassiar Highway in British Columbia and cost approximately $300 million.

Briggs said DOT also is looking at building small access roads in Southeast and Interior Alaska.

A worksheet distributed by DOT Southeast Region Director Paxton estimated construction of the Juneau Access and Gravina Bridge projects could begin as early as 2005.

Paxton also handed out a map of Southeast showing proposed road and ferry projects throughout the region. Combined ferry and road proposals would connect Juneau to Hoonah, by way of a road through Admiralty Island.

Other proposals include roads from Coffman Cove to Thorne Bay, from Kake to Petersburg and from Ketchikan to Wrangell.

"I don't think we've made progress in the last 10 years," Paxton said.

He said he and others at DOT are working to improve the quality of life for Alaskans.

"We need people who don't understand to get out of the way so we can move forward," he said.

Briggs also said DOT is working to reduce the amount of money the state spends subsidizing the Alaska Marine Highway System.

He said the average age of the eight vessels in the system is more than 30 years old and more and more money will be needed to meet federal regulatory requirements in the future.

"By 2010, the Aurora, the LeConte, the Kennicott, the Matanuska and the Taku will have to have $20 to $40 million invested in them each to comply with the safety of life at sea and other regulatory requirements," he said. "When considering the other transportation needs of the state, the continued pouring of ever-declining funding into these 35- to 50-year old vessels does not make fiscal sense."

AMHS general manager Capacci said DOT plans to replace five of the eight vessels by 2010.

"We need to reduce our General Fund operating subsidy while improving service to all of our customers," Capacci said.

It will cost approximately $365 million to replace the vessels, Briggs said, noting that most of the cost would be paid for by the federal government.

• Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.

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