My Turn: Juneau access and the Information Highway

Posted: Tuesday, November 12, 2002

With all the discussion prior to the elections about which candidate supported the road out of Juneau along Lynn Canal, I thought it might be best to step back and really, truly have some serious dialogue. Where is this road going? The residents of Haines and Skagway have voted against it, as has Juneau on several occasions. The words commonly heard are so constituents can get to town and visit their capital and the legislators, or local residents can get out in time of inclement weather.

Let's be honest. Any Bush resident is going to have to get to Anchorage or Fairbanks long before they can drive to Juneau. After that, it's still a day and a half trip to Juneau through Tok, Haines Junction and Haines at the overnight cost of several hundred dollars. No one coming to see their legislator will want to camp along the way, since the Legislature meets in the middle of winter. Are Juneauites going to drive to Anchorage to shop? It's a day and a half drive, and an overnight hotel stay at one of the few hotels, motels, or B&Bs along the way. Maybe once a year we'll go, but then the ferry is just fine for getting to Haines for that. The new fast ferry will cut the Juneau-Haines trip to 2 1/2 hours, and will run in inclement weather. Once the fast ferry spoke-and-hub system is complete, it will be a much better system than the circuit routes used now. No one is ever going to say "I need to fly to Anchorage today and it's fogged in.... I'll just drive instead."

Let's look at road construction. We've all heard about the number of avalanche zones the road will pass through. What else can we expect? It's taking multiple years to construct a short road from Metlakatla to the new ferry terminal on Annette Island. How long will the Lynn Canal road take to construct? Are we so sure of the engineering estimates? That's a lot of rock to blast, bridges to build, environmental assessments to conduct and delay by lawsuit, and so forth. And we're blasting through one of the most pristine undisturbed areas left in this area. Is it a 10-year long project to go 40 miles?

I think there may be a solution that solves almost all of the requirements. Let's take the road money and instead build a series of video-teleconferencing centers (VTC) at every town and Bush community in the state. Residents could schedule time to discuss things with their legislator in any kind of weather, face-to-face, without ever leaving their home community. The construction and computer network tech jobs required for all the VTC sites would more than equal the number of construction workers needed for the road project and they would be permanent jobs. Those jobs would stay in Alaska later as VTC computer maintenance and operations. As a bonus, you could rent out VTC time to residents to stay in touch with friends and relatives rather than traveling throughout the Bush. The resulting development of computer talent required to support the statewide VTC would be a much better boost to the economy than finding some Lower-48 construction firm (let's be real about where a firm big enough for this job will come from) to build us a Lynn Canal road. The VTC bridge would go a long way to help bring high tech to the villages, as well as high-speed Internet access and distance learning opportunities.

Did I also mention that we don't even have enough state money to maintain the roads and bridges we have now, let alone all this new proposed construction?

This problem of access to and from the capital, access to our Legislature and smart decisions about how to use insufficient funds has several solutions. Only one is proposed here. But before we open Juneau by a road just to appease job creation, destruction of wilderness and a string of 7-11s along the Lynn Canal Road, we should examine more possibilities. Increased fast ferry service and VTC will tie all our Southeast neighbors into the process instead of cutting them out to go it alone.

Jim Plosay of Juneau serves with the U.S. Navy. He previously supported a road out of town but has decided there has to be a better alternative.

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