My Turn: Should we build a road to Juneau? Do the math

Posted: Friday, December 05, 2003

When contemplating a major purchase it is wise to do some research before putting down your hard-earned cash. Is the product cost-effective? Reliable? Safe? Damaging to the environment? Attractive? Wanted by the people who would have to use it?

Governor Murkowski is trying to sell us a road from Juneau to Skagway. Let's do some research before we buy.

How much will the road cost? Many construction estimates have been made over the years. A 1994 Department of Transportation (DOT) study estimated construction costs at $330 million. The 1997 draft environmental impact statement estimated the cost to be $232 million. The problem with estimates is that they are just that - estimates. Let's look at real numbers from completed projects.

A road to Whittier was completed in 2000. Originally estimated to cost $42 million, it ended up costing $80 million. With 10 miles of flat road and an existing 2 1/2-mile tunnel that was widened, the Whittier road cost $6.4 million per mile. Recent reconstruction on the Haines Highway cost $2.5 million per mile. This was done in an existing roadbed, on flat terrain, with some blasting and realignment.

At 65 miles long, the East Lynn Canal road would traverse some of the most rugged terrain in Alaska. I've climbed there. The route, north of Berners Bay, is mostly steep rock. Blasting and tunneling a road through solid rock is very expensive, as would be the bridges over the four rivers at the head of Berners Bay and the Katzehin. Are we really to believe that a whole new road in this terrain can be built for $232 million, or $3.6 million per mile? Even the estimate of $330 million, $5.1 million per mile, seems low considering the technical challenges.

OK, here comes the math. Let's take the construction estimate ($330 million), the annual maintenance cost from DOT in 1994 ($5.3 million), and the annual traffic estimate from the 1997 DEIS of 210,000 vehicles, and project into the future with a 20-year life of the road before reconstruction. Construction ($330 million) plus 20 years of maintenance ($106 million) divided by 20 years of traffic (4.2 million vehicles) equals a cost to taxpayers of $103.81 per vehicle per one-way trip on the road. Can a subsidy of this magnitude be justified in these times of spiraling national debt and state budget cuts, especially when a cheaper alternative exists?

Unlike the road, the ferry covers part of its operating cost from fares. The summer day boat just about breaks even.

Of course, that $103 per trip depends on DOT's estimate of 210,000 vehicles a year. On the Whittier Road, officials predicted that 430,000 to 1.2 million people would use the road annually. The reality was closer to 260,000. So much for estimates.

Would the road be safe and reliable? The 1997 DEIS contained a thorough avalanche report. It detailed 58 avalanche paths crossing 4.2 miles of the proposed road, yielding an avalanche hazard rating of 346 on a scale where 100 is considered very high. Without protective structures, risk to life would be extreme. Building snow sheds, essentially tunnels over the road, and using extensive helicopter bombing of avalanche paths could reduce the hazard rating to 62 - still high, but at a cost. The price for the snow sheds alone is estimated to be $31 million, about the same cost as the new fast ferry M/V Fairweather. Keeping the road open in winter would be a challenge.

What about the environment? DOT has not adequately explained how they will build the road without harming the rich ecosystem of Berners Bay or the Steller sea lions of Grand Point. The landscape? The road, with its huge cuts and fills, would create an ugly scar running the length of Lynn Canal. Is this the Alaska that tourists come to see? The communities? Haines and Skagway are overwhelmingly against this road. Juneau residents voted for improved ferry service.

The road is a bad buy, especially when we already have a safe and reliable ferry system. DOT must stop treating the Marine Highway as an unwanted stepchild. With adequate support and consistent scheduling the Marine Highway can work. It shouldn't be abandoned for an expensive, dangerous, unreliable, harmful, ugly and unwanted road.

• Rob Goldberg is a member of the Haines Borough Planning Commission.

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