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Vote No group formed on Douglas Crossing

Posted: Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A "Vote No" group has formed for Proposition 2, which asks voters to extend a 1 percent temporary sales tax for 10 years for a second North Douglas crossing.

The group will hold an informational meeting from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Silverbow Inn, where Bob Armstrong, an environmental author and former biologist and research supervisor with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will speak. Armstrong has been studying the Mendenhall Wetlands since 1960.

Jon Tillinghast, spokesman for the group, outlined the issues the group has with the specific proposal. He said the group consists of environmentalists who are opposed to any crossing to North Douglas, environmentalists who want a second crossing but think this is the wrong way to do it, and those with financial concerns.

Tillinghast said the temporary sales tax has existed since 1997 and has been for set projects designated for 2-5 year projects like a new police station or renovations at Bartlett Regional Hospital. That sales tax ends by law Oct. 1, 2013.

"The first concern is we've never tied up this 1 percent sales tax for 10 years," he said. "We're using it all. It will generate $94 million (during the 10 years)."

He said $80 million would go to a "causeway." The ballot proposition isn't specific, it just cites "crossing." There also would be $11.9 million in interest on bonds for that $80 million, according to figures sent to Tillinghast from city finance director Craig Duncan.

"That's an issue nobody has paid attention to," Tillinghast said.

Thirdly, the group is concerned with what's left - $280,000 a year over a 10 year period.

"(That) isn't enough for any other special project," he said.

Another concern is that if the project costs more than the $80 million projected, the city is liable for coming up with the remaining funds. Tillinghast said that would have to come from either another extension of the temporary sales tax or an increase in property taxes.

Tillinghast noted that while the proposition doesn't specifically say causeway, the Safe, Affordable, Future, Efficient, Committee - a group in favor of the crossing - uses the term frequently.

"You can't build a bridge for that kind of money," Tillinghast said, adding a report conducted several years ago cited a figure of $185 million for a bridge.

"You cannot build anything but a sort of cheap and dirty causeway with $80 million," he said.

Tillinghast said the best practice would be to go after the $400 million to $500 million the federal government gives in Federal Highway funds per year.

"It's a motor fuel tax and we're sending our motor fuel tax to projects Outside," he said. "It's almost unheard of for a project this size to be built without federal money."

It's also a concern because of the city budget.

"The city is tapped out already," he said. "They had to borrow $2.4 million from the rainy day fund because they were faced with laying off 15 employees."

Another economic concern is that people in the group believe the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration, which both would have jurisdiction over the new highway, would ultimately deny a permit and the city will have wasted $10 million to $15 million and at least five years. Tillinghast said a likely outcome would be that either entity would tell the city no, and it would have to be moved from Sunny Point to another location and the structure may have to change.

Tillinghast said there's also a "motherhood" issue. One of SAFE's concerns, he said, is the safety element of being able to get emergency services there quicker and to the hospital faster - especially in an avalanche scenario.

"If that's your concern, then you wouldn't build the causeway at Sunny Point," he said. "You would build it at Salmon Creek. It's closer to the hospital and you'd cut 15-20 minutes off of ambulance time."

He said the "primary concern" for opening up West Douglas is housing development.

"The private sector needs to take care of itself," he said, adding that people in the group see Sunny Point as a way to cut down on drive time to the Eaglecrest Ski Area.

"I don't know how I'd get through winter without Eaglecrest," he said, but added the sales tax is highly regressive on those with lower incomes. "Yet, we're asking the people who can least afford Eaglecrest to bear a disproportionate share of the cost for those who do use Eagelcrest? That could very well be the straw that breaks the camel's back and that would be a shame."

Tillinghast said neither SAFE nor the city have done the work to resolve the environmental concerns, which he believes will ultimately kill the project.

"They want the promise of money first, then they'll do the work," he said. "They're putting the cart before the horse."

Members of the group are also concerned a causeway will essentially dam up the Mendenhall refuge.

"It will dramatically affect the tidal movement in the refuge," Tillinghast said. "When the tides no longer go up as high or low it will drastically affect vegetation. ... How badly? We don't know."

An environmental assessment hasn't been completed for the project.

Tillinghast said that area is where the stuff whales eat propagates and spawns. A change in vegetation will negatively affect that. It's the same situation with the birds, he added.

"(The wetlands) is going to become an entirely different creature," Tillinghast said. "It's not going to be a better creature. The problem is, we don't know how bad it's going to be."

Another issue with the idea of a causeway structure is that the bridge portion will only have a clearance of 16 feet at high tide. The coast guard regulation is 50 feet.

"Small pleasure boats will still be able to cross the bar," Tillinghast said, but larger boats, like gillnet boats, will no longer be able to use it at all.

"Gastineau Channel will no longer be navigable," he said.

On Wednesday, the open house will feature a slide show and short presentation on these issues and the group will be asking for questions from the public. Tillinghast said they want people to share their concerns. He said the event will last longer than two hours.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@ juneauempire.com.

Editor's note: The SAFE Committee held a similar event last month. To see the Empire's coverage of that event and the issues as presented by SAFE, please visit http://tinyurl.com/2be7ryw and http://tinyurl.com/2eg2vhc



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