Never in Alaska's history as a state has a governor (not Govs. Egan, Hickel, Miller, Hammond, Sheffield, or Cowper ) publicly inserted himself in a local political issue. In planning our advocacy for a pro-road vote, we decided to make as little mention of Gov. Knowles' actions as possible and to take the high road in the campaign. We didn't, and don't, want feelings about the governor, whatever he has done, to be mixed up in this Juneau debate. This is a local issue and should be left to we locals to settle.
Yet, Gov. Knowles has intervened, quoted on the front page of Sunday's Empire saying that a pro-road vote will send the wrong message. Earlier this year, in the normal discharge of his duties, the governor accepted the road as the preferred alternative. This is shown in a letter from Joe Perkins, ADOT&PF Commissioner, to the Federal Highway Administration, dated Feb. 22, which says " we recommend that Alternative 2: East Lynn Canal Highway be selected as the preferred alternative The governor has accepted our recommendation." The letter goes on to say that the state cannot afford the preferred alternative "at this time."
Well, we figured that the road would become affordable at some later time and so it made sense that the state should continue work on the Juneau Access Study. Begun in 1992, it will take at least two more years to complete. By that time, the state will be flush with federal highway construction grants totaling $400 million per year. The road will surely be affordable then. So, last session we asked the Alaska Legislature to fund completion of the access study and they did! But the governor vetoed that money and the project was halted. Why would the governor accept the road on one hand and then do whatever he could to kill it on the other?
Here is part of the answer: The governor accepted the road based on ADOT&PF's analysis that it is the best and least expensive long-term access solution for Juneau and that it will substantially reduce the state's maintenance budget. That's what the numbers show, and no amount of misinformation or voodoo engineering by non-professionals will change those facts. Federal construction money has been programmed for other projects that have been years in planning and design. Will the road be affordable shortly? Yes! The state will receive four BILLION dollars over the next 10 years. You bet we can afford the road over the course of that time. It will take the state a couple of years to finish the environmental work, the design, and then to build it on a five-year construction schedule. The sheer size of the undertaking requires that we resume work as soon as possible.
So, why is the governor resisting the findings of his own professional engineers, and of himself, for that matter? Clues to his thinking are few. In early 2000, at a press conference, he announced the bond initiative that included a fast ferry for Lynn Canal. I was there. He said that there appeared to be a lack of community support for the road. He said much the same when he vetoed the study money a few months ago. In Sunday's Empire, he said that a pro-road vote is really a vote against the ferry system in the eyes of the legislature.
To respond, our vote for the road will demonstrate the level of community support - end of mystery there. As far as the Southcentral-dominated legislature goes, it was this legislature that funded completion of the Juneau Access Study. Why? Because they know that the road will make the entire ferry system more efficient and save money for Alaskans. By the way, we road folks have consistently supported the ferry system and the Lynn Canal fast ferry - the latter as an interim improvement until the road is done. The legislature knows that, too.
Aside from the comments above, we really can't explain the governor's actions. This is a local election to determine local desires. The governor has no business in it and we hope he will step back, let us conclude the matter, and then take the result to heart.
A positive vote will do more than anything else to jumpstart completion of the access study. We hope you will vote on Tuesday and we hope the road will come out on top. There has never been a more important time for every voter in this town to participate and you may not get the chance again.
Murray Walsh is chairman of Alaskans for Better Access.