State pushes up timetable to build road

Highway out of town would be complete by 2009 under Murkowski's schedule

Posted: Friday, November 11, 2005

Juneau motorists could get a road to within a 16-mile ferry ride to Skagway in four years or less, state transportation officials said this week.

With nearly $200 million now proposed over the next two years for a 50-mile seaside link from Juneau to a ferry terminal south of Skagway, state officials believe they can finish the controversial project by 2009.

Until this week, the project appeared to be on a much slower track.

With little money in hand, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities had planned to build the road piecemeal as funds trickled in.

This winter, however, the Murkowski administration plans to designate the road-ferry project for nearly full funding over the next few years.

Due to a federal policy regarding national park land, the road cannot end in Skagway as originally planned. Now, the proposed road will end at the Katzehin River and travelers north will need to board a ferry for a 16-mile ride to the continental road network.

The completion of environmental studies and the onset of permitting looms for the project early in 2006.

State officials expressed optimism Thursday that they can begin building the road this summer. Using the $75 million proposed for the project in 2006, Southeast Alaska regional highway engineer Pat Kemp believes he can get the road - and two bridges across Berners Bay's Lace and Antler rivers - built out to Independence Creek just north of Comet Beach by late 2007 or early 2008.

About $103 million is proposed for the road in 2007, which would allow potential completion of the project by 2008 or 2009.

"Bridges are the most expensive part of the whole project. They will probably take longer than the other parts," Kemp said.

But even proponents of the project are hedging bets on when the project will really be done.

"Once they throw some dirt, I'll be willing to put some money down," said Dick Knapp, a proponent and former state Transportation and Public Facilities commissioner.

The project is budgeted at about $285 million, though its critics believe it will more likely cost $300 million.

With Juneau residents about evenly split and a majority of Haines and Skagway residents opposed, efforts to block the road-ferry project will likely peak in the spring.

That's when federal and state agencies are expected to take comments and issue their decisions on the project.

Environmentalists and other road critics could sue to block the project's record of decision, planned for publication in late March or April, or appeal its permits.

"Various groups see it as a completely unnecessary waste of our resources and are committed to do whatever it takes to maintain ferry service in Lynn Canal," said Emily Ferry, coordinator of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project. Her group advocates for improved ferry service instead of new roads.

The state Transportation and Public Facilities Department's most critical permit for the project is a single application to the U.S. Corps of Engineers to approve the entire project.

Though the department plans to apply for the permit sometime in January, "obviously it's unrealistic to have (detailed drawings) for the entire 50 miles," said Reuben Yost, the project manager for the road's environmental impact statement.

Instead, the Corps permit application would include detailed drawings for only the first phase of the project, out to Independence Creek, Yost said.

Corps of Engineers project manager Jeff Koschak said he knows of one other project in Southeast Alaska that his agency has approved despite a lack of complete drawings.

That project, a 20-mile road from Coffman Cove nearly to Craig, on Prince of Wales Island, is now nearing completion, Koschak said.

Federal and state regulators are already getting their chance to internally review a draft of the road-ferry project's final environmental impact statement, targeted for public release in January.

Koschak said he has a draft of the final document on his desk, as well as a draft of the Corps permit. "It's hard to tell when we will finish. ... We shoot for four months (after public comments are received). ... I don't know if it can be done," he said.

State transportation planners say one major reason they are hurrying the project along is that it has been under development for the last 10 years and it is considered a "time trap," under a federal law that could yank funding if work hasn't commenced.

As it is, the state may need an extension because its federal deadline under the time trap rule is Dec. 31, Yost said.

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