Road-ferry vote a matter of politics

Many expect road to win on ballot; effects afterward hotly debated

Posted: Sunday, September 24, 2000

City voters are being asked to support either a road or better ferry service to improve Juneau access.

But an underlying question in the Oct. 3 municipal election might be this: Has the train already left the station?

Both leading supporters and opponents of a road north to Skagway seem to expect that most voters will choose the road option in the advisory ballot question. But they differ on what that result would mean for Juneau.

A conspicuous opponent of the road is Gov. Tony Knowles. His decision in January to seek construction of three fast ferries put the road on the backburner -- way back -- as a state initiative.

The 65-mile road from Echo Cove to Skagway, estimated officially at $230 million, is prohibitively expensive and could take a decade to construct, Knowles decided. Instead, the state is now working with five firms on proposals to build the first of the fast ferries, a $38.5 million vessel that is to be deployed as a Sitka-Juneau dayboat in three years.

In an interview Friday, Knowles warned a majority vote for the road not only would fail to get a road built, but could result in reduced ferry service in Southeast.

Some critics have said the ballot measure is meaningless because the governor already made his decision on Juneau access, although the next administration, in theory, could make a different decision come 2003.

But Knowles said a vote in favor of the road would be noticed by legislators, resulting in unintended consequences.

"I think it means a lot," he said. "I say that because I think what's at stake here -- and the way it'll be interpreted is -- does Juneau support the ferry system? ... Don't kid yourself into thinking it (a pro-road vote) will be for the road; it'll be against the ferry system."

Knowles noted that even with solid community support, a new high school in Juneau was blocked by the refusal of the Legislature to provide matching funds. Northern legislators who don't have a stake in the Alaska Marine Highway system would be emboldened to make budget cuts if Juneau is on record rejecting better ferry service, he said.

But Murray Walsh thinks a pro-road vote would improve Juneau's position, particularly with regard to the always lingering threat of a capital move.

"I think a pro-road vote sends a good message to the state," said Walsh, chairman of Alaskans for Better Access, the transportation committee of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and a ballot group registered with the state. "I think it's a message the state wants to hear."

The road would reduce the threat of Juneau losing the capital "more than any other single thing" that could be done, he said.

"I think a road would make a huge difference," said Win Gruening, chairman of the Alaska Committee, the local group that promotes Juneau as the capital. The committee recently staffed a booth at the Tanana Valley Fair in Fairbanks and got a lot of unsolicited comments about Juneau's accessibility, Gruening said.

But raising the capital move issue is "hysterical," says Joe Geldhof, treasurer of Safe Access Now for Everyone (SANE), a pro-ferry ballot group registered with the state. "The road per se will not diffuse the capital move issue one iota. What the real data shows is that as long as Juneau as a community works to diligently improve access, the state of Alaska says that's enough."

Programs such as "constituent air fare," which provides discounts for flying to Juneau during legislative sessions, and the "Gavel to Gavel" telecasts of committee hearings and floor sessioons are enough to secure the capital here, Geldhof said. Ironically, Gruening and others might be increasing the odds of a capital move by continually raising the question of whether Juneau is adequate, he said.

Geldhof doesn't deny that a vote for the road has appeal, calling it "a free lunch." The vote would have no effect, by itself.

"It certainly would not surprise me if the road would win. People are somewhat disgruntled with the management of the Alaska Marine Highway system," Geldhof said. But that would galvanize the opposition, including the national Sierra Club, he contends. "I think the people will say, 'The goofballs have done it again here in Juneau, and we'd better get to work.' I'll fight them for the next five years just for sport."

Meanwhile, some people lament the either-or wording the Juneau Assembly chose for the ballot question.

Dave Goade, executive vice president of Goldbelt Inc., the Juneau Native corporation, said pitting a road against ferry improvements isn't productive.

"What if it comes out 49-51?" Goade asked. "What does that tell everybody? That it's evenly split? Everyone already knew that."

Goldbelt has strategically placed property at Cascade Point, near the existing end of Glacier Highway, which could be used for a ferry terminal or for a convenience store and service station for drivers. Goade worries the ballot issue could polarize the community. "Is that going to create limbo? Is that going to end all momentum? So we're back at square one, after all these years: That's my fear."

Walsh said the advisory vote will give decision-makers something to react to. When Knowles made his decision for the fast ferries "he said himself it wasn't clear to him what the community really wanted," Walsh said,

Walsh said he didn't know how much of a difference the vote spread might make. "Fifty-two (percent) is better than 51; 60 is better than 51," he said. "If the people vote more than one-half against the road, none of us will ever say another word about it. I don't think the other side is willing to say that."

Alaskans for Better Access would use a pro-road vote to get the Juneau Assembly to increase pressure on the Knowles administration to finish the environmental impact statement on transportation alternatives for Lynn Canal, Walsh said. The draft EIS in 1997 identified a road as having the lowest long-term cost, due to ongoing expenses associated with ferry maintenance.

But even if the road option attracts 60 percent support, "That won't build us a road," said Greg O'Claray, a marine union leader who is active in SANE. "Because it's not do-able within the near future, financially as well as politically." Legislators in the Interior won't appropriate state and federal funds for the road to Skagway over road projects in their own districts, he said.

A road is at least seven years off, and in the meantime enhanced ferry service is needed, O'Claray said. "The road debate now is hurting the ferry system." He noted the Legislature refused to fund the administration's request for an additional $6.9 million for the first fast ferry.

SANE has raised $9,000 for its campaign against the road, Geldhof said. Walsh said Alaskans for Better Access probably will spend $20,000 by election day. Radio and print advertisements, signs and direct mail are being used to influence voters.

Walsh said because the road would be the biggest public infrastructure improvement in Juneau's 100-year history, "This is the biggest issue to face Juneau."

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