The scattered islands, ancient forests and mountain ranges of Southeast Alaska make for some of the most captivating travel scenery in the state.
But the rugged landscape, harsh weather and isolated cities make transportation expensive, difficult and sometimes dangerous.
Regional economic development organizations such as the Southeast Conference - a group that touts about 100 members, including 29 community governments - say inefficient transportation in the Panhandle impedes business.
In March, the group called for a rewrite of the plan that dictates what surface and air transportation projects the region will pursue during the next 25 years. The U.S. Forest Service, at the request of the Southeast Conference, prepared a report documenting various transportation projects studied or considered during the past several decades.
The report, titled Southeast Alaska Proposed Public Road and Ferry Projects, identifies 20 transportation projects in the Panhandle.
In September, the state Department of Transportation announced it will rewrite the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan by April 2004.
A draft plan will be presented for public comment in early January. During the 45-day public comment period, DOT will hold 18 public meetings in Southeast communities of 200 or more people.
"We'll summarize the comments and present them to the project's advisory groups," said DOT Regional Planning Chief Andy Hughes. "They'll propose any changes that might be desirable, then we'll put together a final draft."
The new plan will reflect citizens' and communities' opinions and the priorities of Gov. Frank Murkowski, who favors increased road construction in the region.
Proponents of ferry service, instead of road construction, are critical of the short time frame for the rewrite and question whether Alaska's congressional delegation can capture the funds necessary to move forward with many of the projects.
In October, DOT awarded a $250,000 contract to the Juneau-based consulting firm Walsh Planning and Development Services. The firm is headed by Murray Walsh, former chairman of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee. Walsh has directed all press inquiries to DOT.
DOT and Walsh distributed a project newsletter earlier this month outlining 106 possible transportation projects in the region. Many are included in the existing Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, published in 1999.
Some of the top projects listed in the newsletter include a road connecting Juneau and Skagway, a road and ferry link from Juneau to Hoonah, a link from Hoonah to Sitka, a road crossing Bradfield Canal near Wrangell to the Cassiar Highway in British Columbia, and roads connecting Ketchikan and Wrangell.
The Forest Service's Proposed Road and Ferry Projects report lists the price tag for Juneau access at $300 million, but the project newsletter released by the DOT lists the project at $260 million. A footnote on the newsletter explains the $260 million figure is updated for inflation from 1997.
Planning Chief Hughes said DOT and Walsh have met with four advisory groups - Murkowski's Marine Transportation Advisory Board, the Southeast Conference's transportation committee, Southeast mayors and Native leaders - over the past few weeks, seeking opinions on the draft plan.
At an advisory meeting last week, Walsh and DOT presented Southeast Conference and Transportation Advisory Board members with maps laying out project plans for the next 22 years.
Hughes said the first component of the plan, which sets a timeline for projects out to 2010, makes few changes to the 1999 plan but likely will include fewer mainline ferries. The 2010 plan also includes Juneau Access, a project that likely would build a road from Juneau to Skagway. Other maps lay out construction plans through 2025.
Bob Doll, executive director of the recently formed advocacy group Better Ferries for Alaska, said he has not seen the preliminary plan, but is disappointed it does not include ferry service for Lynn Canal.
Doll, a former DOT Southeast region director, said dedicating money to multi-million-dollar road projects for Southeast will prevent other projects in the rest of the state from being built.
"What no one has asked is what does it cost - not in terms of dollars, but in terms of other projects that do not get built," he said.
Doll said projects slated for the next decade may be the only ones of importance anyway, considering that Alaska's U.S. Rep. Don Young and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens will not continue to serve as head of the House Transportation Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee, respectively.
"The influence we have in Congress is not going to last for even another 10 years," he said.
Comments on the draft plan can be sent to Andy Hughes at 6860 Glacier Highway, Juneau, AK, 99801 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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