City, business leaders revisit road debate

Experts wonder about speed, support for route

Posted: Sunday, October 16, 2005

The debate over the state's plan to build a road from Juneau to a ferry terminal near Skagway has sparked new arguments since the plan was altered in August.

A panel of experts at a Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Friday debated whether the new alternative is quicker than riding the fast ferry, and if there is enough support from politicians to appropriate funds.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities planned on building a continuous road to Skagway until being told by the National Park Service that it could not use federal dollars for a road running through protected lands near Skagway.

The alternative is to build a 50-mile highway to a terminal at the Katzehin River, then ferry passengers and vehicles to either Haines or Skagway.

Opponents of the department's plans said the alternative would not save passengers time if they are waiting at the connecting ferry terminal for rides that leave every hour and a half for Haines or every 212 hours for Skagway.

"If you can take out the waiting time ... our existing system using the Fairweather is actually a faster way to get to Haines and Skagway," said Emily Ferry, coordinator of Alaska Transportation Priorities Project.

Reuben Yost, special projects manager for the transportation department, said people are required to arrive as much as an hour early at the ferry terminal to guarantee their reservations. That waiting time makes the "no action" alternative longer, he said.

Under the current proposal, if there are no delays, a person traveling 45 mph from Juneau to Haines would arrive in 212 hours, or reach Skagway in three hours, Yost said. The estimated time includes loading onto and off of the ferries. The shuttles would be first-come, first-serve, and take no reservations

Opponents of the road said funding the project will be difficult considering recent events in the news and attitudes of state and national lawmakers.

The alternative now proposed will cost about $190 million, according to the state. It would have to spend $16 million on the ferry terminals and $48 million on a vessel. Maintenance and operations for the highway and shuttle ferries would be $9 million a year, state officials said.

The state is expected to receive less federal transportation money through 2009 because of a projects bill passed by Congress in July that appropriates $1 billion to Alaska over a multiyear period.

"This year, the DOT predicts we are going to be down $50 million statewide for our core transportation projects," Ferry said.

Funding from the federal level could also be less because of needs for foreign wars and hurricane victims, and furthermore, state legislators would rather spend money for projects in their own district, Juneau lawyer Joe Geldhof said.

"When I ask them about the road, they laugh," he said, adding that the project has no economic benefit to the state.

Congress set aside $15 million for the road and the state has given $5 million so far. Department officials have discussed using that money to extend Glacier Highway another six miles to the Antler River in the near future.

"From there, where we get the next amount of funding to continue is anyone's guess," Ferry said.

Yost said the final environmental impact statement will outline where the funding will come from.

The Transportation and Public Facilities Department will give a preliminary final EIS for review to cooperating agencies at the end of this month. A draft will be available to the public in January for a 30-day review period.

Road supporter and former Transportation and Public Facilities Department commissioner Dick Knapp said the state receives $450 million each year of federal highway money for infrastructure.

"A lot of it is earmarked, but there's lot of fat in there too," Knapp said. The money cannot be used for maintenance, so often good roads are being torn up or redesigned just to spend the money, he said.

Knapp proposes using money not tied down to pay for the road. He added that if federal funds for Alaska are less in the next few years, then that also means less money for the ferry system.

In response to state legislators being against funding the highways, Yost said he doesn't believe it. He said the governor favors the road and the Legislature showed its backing last session when it approved a resolution in support of the highway.

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