My turn: Juneau should resist the temptation to sprawl to North Douglas

Posted: Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Juneau's beauty and success, as community and capital, is largely because we have not sprawled - like the many Lower 48 cities we fled. Beyond the rock dump and Auke Bay and Douglas, we're almost rural. We're compact and friendly and efficient.

Now, we're considering sales-taxing ourselves for 10 years to build a very costly second crossing causeway (a dam with a road on top) to North Douglas, primarily to better access West Douglas wilderness land, owned by Goldbelt and the city, beyond the end of North Douglas Highway, for residential and commercial development and for a golf course.

While this second crossing will reduce driving time and save fuel for Mendenhall Valley and out-the-road folks visiting Eaglecrest and North Douglas, West Douglas land development will entice, and require, many of us to drive more miles and burn more gallons of precious fuel - including the construction industry "developing" the pristine land, and the mail and package trucks, fire and police and snowplows, and our cars. Juneau will have sprawled into a West Douglas Wasilla. Isn't that the last thing we want to do?

But, doesn't Juneau have enough hydro energy to replace the 10 million gallons of gasoline per year we now use in our personal vehicles, when battery electric vehicles, or BEVs become widely available and affordable? Yes, if we all drove only small cars like the soon-available Nissan Leaf - no pickups, no SUVs, no vans. No, if we still want to haul eight people, or firewood, or trailer a boat, or replace heating oil with hydroelectric-powered ground source heat pumps bringing free heat indoors.

Juneau already has large energy and carbon dioxide footprints. We travel and boat a lot; the tourism industry is very energy-intensive. Imagine all the "embodied energy" in the Sunny Point interchange, the thousands of gallons of diesel fuel burned to haul and grade and pave all that rock and gravel. The proposed second crossing dam-road will be even bigger, with more fuel use and carbon dioxide emission. Shouldn't we try to make those Juneau footprints smaller, not larger?

I'm writing from Montreal, where I'm among 5,000 delegates attending the 21st World Energy Congress: mostly captains of industry, energy ministers, and experts. Their consensus is that strict energy conservation, beginning now, is necessary - among many other extraordinary measures - to leave Earth's children good prospects for prosperity, health, and happiness. We're almost painted into a corner.

No one proposed silver bullets, but a variety of very large capital investments in energy conservation and renewable energy infrastructure, for which we must wisely preserve our scarce capital rather than dissipating it in projects like the proposed second crossing, which defeat rebuilding the world's largest industry - energy - for future generations' prosperity.

We're all in the same boat. Drilling another hole in Juneau's end sinks us all a bit faster. Juneau's splendid isolation can be mesmerizing; we imagine we've escaped to another planet, leaving the pesky laws of chemistry and physics behind. I'm often so afflicted, but it's not so.

Lower 48 urban and transportation planners now struggle with how to energy-efficiently serve their sprawled cities' mobility needs. Even the most elegant light rail and bus systems can't efficiently serve sprawl. Tiny cars and eternal nasty traffic seems to be sprawl's fate - which Juneau has escaped, so far. The proposed second crossing dam-road would burst our boundaries, and our bubble of innocence and efficiency. Must this be?

Funding the proposed crossing with another 10 years of an extra 1 percent sales tax requires people who can least afford it, and who are probably least likely to use it, to pay the most for it. We all have to eat, paying sales tax on our groceries. Because food is a larger budget fraction for our lower-income neighbors, the regressive sales tax falls more heavily on them. Is this what we mean to do? Is this fair?

Perhaps we should tax ourselves that extra 1 percent to raise the $70 million we're told the dam-road crossing will cost to invest in a variety of capital improvements that would make Juneau life better for all of us, long-term. What would be on your list of better things to do with $70 million? A complete North Douglas fire and ambulance station, even with a dedicated helicopter, to prevent the emergency access disruption that George Reifenstein wrote about in a My Turn a few weeks ago, would cost a lot less than $70 million.

West Douglas development may have been a good idea 20 years ago, with cheap gasoline and Juneau growth and ignorance of rapid global climate change and ocean acidification. Now, these are absent. Let's be Alaska's ever-better capital and Alaska's laboratory of energy efficiency and smart community design. That requires your no vote on Proposition 2.

• Leighty has been a Juneau small business owner and resident for 38 years.

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