Longer, more direct drives and shorter ferry rides are at the heart of the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan released this week.
The state's overhaul of the surface transportation plan for the Panhandle region, which began last year, has drawn both supporters and critics.
Pointing to a preference for a road up the east side of the Lynn Canal to connect Juneau to Skagway by 2010, the plan also calls for a connection between Ketchikan and the Cassiar Highway in Canada and a highway from Sitka across Baranof Island.
The plan is mostly the same as the draft that many in the region opposed earlier this year. According to the final plan, about 90 percent of the comments on the topic favored a focus on Alaska Marine Highway System improvements instead of more roads.
The major difference between the plan and the draft is that it makes more use of the state ferry Kennicott, said Andy Hughes, southeast regional planning chief for the Department of Transportation.
He is aware that people opposed the emphasis on roads in the draft, but he said the goal is to do what's best for the state's future. "We definitely listen to the public," he said. But he said people who favor a plan generally see no need to comment."There are concerns about putting brand new roads into wild watersheds," said plan opponent Emily Ferry, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council community organizer. But she said her major concern springs from the projected costs.
The plan's summary points out that "fiscal requirements for the (transportation plan) are substantial." Over 20 years it comes to $1.8 billion.
"If you can't fund it, it's not a plan," Ferry said. If funding comes up short, priorities would be set and the Alaska Marine Highway System would lose out, she said.
Funding delays would not mean the region will be without a viable transportation system, the plan says, but it would leave the region with a less efficient system and require more money to be spent in maintaining obsolete ferries.
In a letter accompanying the nearly 200-page document, Gov. Frank Murkowski writes that his goal is to provide Southeast Alaska with efficient, reliable and cost-effective transportation.
"The original mission of the Alaska Marine Highway System was to provide service between our towns and villages, and upon the constructions of roads, the system was intended to transition into service from road head to road head," Murkowski wrote.
"Alaska has a developing economy and only a rudimentary highway system," the plan states.
The state took public comments on the draft of the plan from Jan. 5 through Feb. 23.
In the plan, the state responded to the critics by projecting that change brought by road-based improvements would benefit the public and state by reducing travel costs.
Hughes said the plan calls for a lot of money because the demands are so great. Being realistic with the needs is the only way they can ever be successfully addressed, he said.
Tony Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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