Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire.
If we had to vote today on two items that most people in this community see as absolutely essential to our future - a road from here to Skagway or a new capitol building in downtown - which way would you go?
As for my vote, I'd have to weigh in on the capitol. Why? Because I think that project is much more realistic for both the short and the long term, and because the cost of trying to have both is prohibitive; I think one of the two can and will happen, but never both.
Even though two state legislators - Rep. Bill Stoltze of Chugiak and Rep. Carl Gatto of Palmer - are trying to derail efforts of the Alaska Committee (the group that is working with Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho on proposals for a new capitol) to keep the capital anchored in Juneau, a new capitol or legislative building makes much more sense than does a road up the east side of Lynn Canal.
With respect to the road, I'm one of those who thinks the cost estimates of $200 million to $300 million aren't realistic. I think the project could easily cost twice that, and I think the road would take much longer to build than current projections call for. In fact, the road could easily take a decade or longer to complete; groups opposed to the road because of perceived negative environmental impacts could easily hold up the process for several years.
Factor into the deal, too, Skagway's opposition to the road that would link it to Juneau. Just two weeks ago the town's voters affirmed their city government's opposition to the road by a tally of 251-159 in an advisory vote (not including absentee ballots). In that vote townspeople were asked to choose between the road and improved ferry service, and 61 percent of them opted for better ferry service.
Skagway's City Council has opposed the road in the past, and previous advisory votes in Juneau have been, as is so often the case, evenly split.
The Juneau-to-Skagway road is one of three highway elements contained in Gov. Frank Murkowski's Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, submitted earlier this year. His plan also calls for construction of new highways to establish connections from Ketchikan to the Cassiar Highway in Canada, a route which also would link Wrangell and Petersburg, and a highway from Sitka across Baronoff Island.
There are two other considerations for the road to Skagway: Even if it's completed, those who travel it would still be required to make a shuttle-ferry trip to Haines in order to access the Alaska Highway, and road critics in both Skagway and Haines base their criticism on the detrimental impact they think it would have on their local economies.
Juneau's future is much more closely tied to keeping the capital here than it is to a road out. A new capitol can (and should be) a showpiece not only for Juneau's downtown, but for the rest of Southeast and for the hundreds of thousands of cruise ship tourists who visit this community each year.
The capitol-capital issue really does have to come first for Juneau because of the alternative, that being to have neither. Even if legislators Stoltze and Gatto are successful with legislation requiring voter approval of the costs of a new capitol, Juneau's chances are probably much better for securing that than they are for building the road.
Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.