My Turn: It's not too late for realistic transportation improvements

Posted: Friday, October 31, 2003

Rich Poor, a former transportation official and self-described road advocate, recently authored a thoughtful and conciliatory letter to the editor discussing a compromise regarding access in Lynn Canal. Unfortunately, the maniacal approach the Department of Transportation has adopted with respect to improving access in Lynn Canal appears to preclude a reasoned approach like Poor's to solving long-standing access problems.

Multiple problems exist with the department's current approach to improving access in Lynn Canal. While the decision to restart the stalled Environmental Impact Study process was welcome, the department has embarked on a cumbersome and agonizingly slow course that may prevent adoption of any improvements. Much to the dismay of long-time participants in the planning process, the department decided to revisit the discredited "west side" access alternative. The combination of studying a west-side route and a timetable calling for a preliminary decision in late 2004 may yield a plan impossible to finance or fulfill.

An approach similar to Rich Poor's call to focus on a compromise alternative for the east side of Lynn Canal represents the only realistic solution. Poor calls for construction of a road to a point adjacent to Haines and construction of a new connecting shuttle ferry.

Another alternative similar to Poor's preferred alternative would build a short extension of the existing road north of Juneau to a point where a shuttle ferry could traverse the mouth of Berners Bay. After a short ferry trip, the road would continue to the location described in Poor's alternative.

Sadly, the road-building zealots within the Department of Transportation are bent on a destructive course that is predictably going to end badly. The department seems intent on slowly studying alternatives that border on the ridiculous and has already uttered statements that will surely be put before a judge as examples of "pre-decisional" bias in the context of what is supposed to be an orderly and impartial review.

Individuals who desire to drive to Skagway on a moment's notice believe an uninterrupted road is essential. Individuals willing to compromise and who seek regular, predictable and cheaper access in the Lynn Canal region on a more frequent basis probably agree a drive-float, drive-float alternative makes sense.

Imagine driving to a new shuttle ferry terminal a few miles beyond Echo Cove, the current northern terminus of the road system. A new ferry vessel similar to the roll-on, roll-off ferry built to connect Saxman and Metlakatla could shuttle vehicles across the mouth of Berners Bay. After a short ferry trip, travelers would disembark and head north on a road already substantially designed by the department. Another short ferry shuttle would be required to connect Haines or Skagway with the new Lynn Canal road.

One advantage of adopting a compromise drive-float, drive-float scenario is that the most difficult avalanche problems near Skagway are avoided. Adoption of a creative drive-float alternative avoids construction in the heart of Berners Bay, reduces construction costs, and increases citizen acceptance in Skagway, Haines and Juneau. Most importantly, an intelligent drive-float-drive alternative dramatically lowers the annual operating costs for the Alaska Marine Highway System while significantly improving regular, predictable access in the Lynn Canal region. A compromise that avoids Berners Bay and relies on a combination of short ferry crossings and road travel is also completely consistent with the transportation-planning template adopted for the balance of Southeast Alaska.

It's not yet too late for the department to both accelerate the review of alternatives and actually embrace some realistic alternatives. In order to pass legal, technical and economic criteria required by federal law, the department needs to take a hard look at thoughtful compromise proposals. If the department fails to realistically look at sensible alternatives, the Lynn Canal region will wind up a jumble of irrelevant studies and no meaningful transportation improvements. If we fail to compromise we will wind up with no road and atrocious ferry service. A compromise now will enhance transportation access for decades while still preserving the lands and waters we cherish.

• Joe Geldhof is the Alaska counsel for the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, a labor organization representing licensed marine engineers aboard Alaska Marine Highway System vessels.

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