Empire editorial: Poorly planned road not a legacy worth leaving

Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2006

State road planners swallowed an ugly dose of reality earlier this week when bids for a Juneau access pioneer road came in at double the state's estimate.

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Then the officials retooled the project, asking for a new round of bids. They appear set on ramming the project through before Gov. Frank Murkowski moves out of the Governor's Mansion next month.

Murkowski had four years to push this pet project along, but after it became apparent he couldn't claim construction of a highway out of Juneau as part of his legacy, he's desperately trying to claim victory with any scrap of a dirt road he can get.

Right now that means a 23-mile-long, 18-foot-wide unpaved road from the end of the existing highway at Echo Cove to the Antler River, about 40 miles northwest of Juneau. The state had $30 million set aside to pay for the road, but initial bids came in at $51.5 million to $66.6 million.

That's no surprise to the many people who have been saying all along the state is grossly underestimating the cost of building a road north out of town just to get the project off the ground.

State officials immediately scaled back the project, dropping two bridges, over the Antler and Lace rivers, which they said would cost an estimated $14 million. Somehow, by dropping those bridges, low bidder Southeast Road Builders managed to shave $47.3 million off its proposal.

Big difference. It calls into question the accuracy of all these figures.

Another part of the bidding process further complicates matters. The bids don't include a necessary road extension that links Lace River with Sweeney Creek. The state figures that extension will cost $7.9 million, but Southeast Road Builders estimated it could build the stretch for $12.5 million.

Even after the revisions, the cost of project is still over the $30 million threshold - another indicator that the state continues to underestimate costs.

Transportation officials are now negotiating. They plan to award a contract next week. What are they thinking?

With two key bridges tossed out of the proposal, they're planning to use barges across the Antler and Lace rivers, even though there's no clear indication how that could affect an area teeming with wildlife.

No problem, authorities say. They're sure they can get the permits before the building season starts. Just as they thought they could build a road connecting Juneau and Skagway - until the National Park Service stepped in, pointing out the project would cut through a valuable wildlife and waterfowl refuge.

That single decision cut 18 miles off the planned road, leaving it dangling in the middle of nowhere.

It's clear the state does not have a handle on the real costs of this project. It could run into even more trouble if it awards a contract before getting permits for the pioneer road.

In the governor's attempt to leave some kind of a legacy, his administration is patching together a poorly thought-out substitute project and trying to push it through during the death rattle of his administration.

Murkowski needs to call his people off the Juneau road and leave it to the next governor, so she can do it right.

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