My Turn: Reality of Juneau Access

Posted: Wednesday, November 23, 2005

After reading all the distortions about Juneau Access, here is the real truth from my personnel experience. When my wife and I took our vehicle to Whitehorse in August to pick up our granddaughter, it cost us $445 just to ride the fast ferry (Juneau/Haines/Skagway/Juneau). When three relatives rode the fast ferry to Skagway to join us (walk-on passengers only), it cost them $318 round-trip. The total cost for this trip $763.

This however is not the end of the story. Because the state had to subsidize the ferry system by 50 percent, our trip actually cost a total of $1,526. Remember, every time a resident or tourist travels by ferry they are only paying for half of the cost. The remainder is paid from the state's general fund. Money that could have gone to other state programs, such as education, social services and community revenue sharing.

This is why the legislature and governor told the Department of Transportation to conduct a study to determine the most cost effective way to move the traveling public in and out of Juneau. The state has spent more than $10 million to analyze ten potential transportation alternatives. Based on environmental and cost/benefit studies, public hearings and working with other federal agencies, the state has identified the road to Katzehin River with shuttle service to Haines and Skagway as the preferred alternative.

Now if the preferred alternative is constructed, the Department of Transportation (the true experts on transportation issues) say it will cost about $36 round-trip, plus gas, for a family of four with a vehicle to access the continental highway system at Haines. It would be about $50 round-trip to Skagway. This is good news for everyone who likes to travel, but especially great for the nearly 40 percent of Juneau households that earn $50,000 or less annually and are stuck in the most expensive major city in Alaska.

I know there are many people who are against expanding the road system out of Juneau who say they support "improved ferry service." This includes some of our local politicians and environmental groups such as SEACC. What do they mean by, and just how will "improved ferry service" reduce cost to the traveling public and reduce the state subsidy? It won't! If improved ferry service means buying more ferries and adding more runs, (based on past history), it will end up costing the traveling public higher fares and increases in state subsidies.

Remember what Gov. Frank Murkowski said recently about buying new fast ferries, "These ships are designed for high-density runs and we don't have high-density runs for nine months out of the year." The entire population of Southeast Alaska is about 65,000. It is impossible for this small a market to sustain our ferry system year-round without a large subsidy.

The news media continue to use Emily Ferry as an expert source on transportation issues in Alaska, but to date the only information I can find about her expertise is that she works for the Alaska Coalition, an environmental group dedicated to killing projects like ANWR drilling, the gas pipeline and the Kensington Mine - projects extremely important to Alaska's fiscal and economic health. In one of her My Turns she asked the question, what would happen to walk-on passengers if they have to get off at the Katzehin River instead of Auke Bay. Under the state plan it would cost only $36 round-trip for a vehicle and four passengers to go via the Katzehin River versus $80 round-trip (summer rate) for just one walk-on passenger to go to Auke Bay. My guess is they will bring, borrow or rent a car. Or, if there is enough traffic to justify it, other transportation alternatives will be provided.

If the people who want "improved ferry service" are able to stop the state's plans, do you really think the cost of traveling out of Juneau will ever get cheaper? Do you really think the Legislature would be willing to continue subsidizing ferries at their current levels or higher? It's time for a reality check. Southeast Alaska will no doubt lose another legislative seat to the Railbelt in 2010, eroding our political clout even more and Juneau will remain more isolated than ever.

• Rich Poor has worked for the Department of Transportation for 31 years and served on the Juneau Assembly for seven years. He is retired.

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