Support for ferry puts road on hold

Most road backers say they'll put issue on back burner for now

Posted: Wednesday, October 04, 2000

Is it the end of the road for the road?

Joe Geldhof, a leader in the pro-ferry movement, said Tuesday's city advisory vote narrowly supporting enhanced ferry service as the Juneau access solution means the road issue is now dormant, although not dead.

"This generation of road proponents will fade away," Geldhof said. "I'd say it's settled for the next 10 years."

Murray Walsh, who led the pro-road Alaskans for Better Access, said he and several others who pushed hard for a road to

Skagway are resigned to stepping out of the public spotlight on the issue, after losing by an unofficial 84-vote margin.

"I think there's a fair number of people who really do like the idea of Juneau being isolated and don't see the capital move threat as real," Walsh said. "We mounted as good a campaign as could be mounted."

One longtime advocate of the road, Rosalee Walker, said the issue is too critical to drop, although she said she doesn't know what her next step might be.

In unofficial results, 5,213 voters chose enhanced ferry service in the either-or ballot question, while 5,129 chose the road option.

Meanwhile, pro-road advocates Jamie Parsons and PeggyAnn McConnochie went down to defeat in the contests for mayor and the areawide assembly seat, respectively. Mayor-elect Sally Smith and assembly member-elect Marc Wheeler supported better ferry service instead.

Gov. Tony Knowles, who decided against building the road in January, was pleased with the outcome of the ballot question, said spokesman Bob King.

"He thinks that this was an important vote because it sends a clear message that Juneau residents support a modern fast-ferry system," King said.

Although the kind of ferry improvements weren't specified on the ballot, King noted the state's newly amended Southeast Transportation Plan calls for five fast ferries for zoned service in the region.

Geldhof, treasurer of Safe Access Now for Everyone, said Juneau must speak with one voice on access issues, especially in dealing with the Legislature on funding the ferry system.

"There is almost nothing this community cannot accomplish in the next five years as far as our transportation needs, if we're all singing from the same score," he said.

Walsh said he'll have to be asked before he joins the chorus.

"I'm not going to be a leader anymore; I'll be a follower," he said. "I burned a lot of bridges doing this."

The Juneau vote was welcomed by Haines Chamber of Commerce President Robert Venables.

"I think that was the vote that was necessary to get the pro-road contingent to look at a compromise that will work best for all three communities," Venables said. To date, community sentiment in Haines and Skagway against the road has been given short shrift, he said.

Skagway Mayor John Mielke agreed. "I feel there's too much rhetoric coming out of Juneau that, 'to hell with Haines and Skagway we're going to do what we have to do,' " Mielke said. But he said he doesn't consider the road a dead issue.

Walker, a former assembly member and longtime member of the Alaska Committee, said she's aware Walsh and others promised to give up on the issue if they lost Tuesday. "But I think that would be a mistake. ... I do want to keep the idea afloat, no matter what anybody else says."

Leaders on both sides were surprised by the outcome.

Greg O'Claray of SANE said: "Our goal was to keep them under 60 percent."

Geldhof said mid-summer polling showed the pro-ferry faction down by only five percentage points, a big surprise at the time. The poll also identified public concern about avalanches as one of the biggest impediments to supporting the road, another surprise, he said.

Geldhof said SANE's strategy was to press its best points without tearing the community apart. "We stayed on our message."

For Walsh, though, that message sometimes strayed into "falsehoods." For example, some SANE radio ads and fliers suggested unnamed people were trying to hide the truth about avalanches and other issues with the road, he said. "We did our best to run a clean, open, upfront campaign. We didn't stretch the truth. We didn't say anything bad about anybody else. ... The people I was working with are not Chicago politicians."

O'Claray said everyone voted for improved access, and that's the basis from which the assembly should lead the community. "I'd like to see the community work together on a project for a change. Everybody needs to lick their wounds and get back in line here and do what's best for Juneau."

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