Gov. Sean Parnell moved to build a small section of a controversial road out of Juneau by announcing Monday a 2.9-mile, $5 million extension of Glacier Highway from Echo Cove to Cascade Point.
Parnell did not say why he chose to fund the project or who would benefit, other than to say in a statement that it would provide safe access to public lands.
"We recognize the importance of providing safe roads for Alaskans," Parnell said. "We look forward to improving the road and making it available to more Juneau residents."
The state wants to extend the highway to provide safe access to the Cascade Point area and public lands north of the city, according to the statement.
Access to Cascade Point would chiefly benefit Goldbelt Inc., Juneau's urban Native corporation, which owns property there.
The corporation plans to develop a dock and marine facility to transport Kensington mine employees from Cascade Point across Berners Bay to work, CEO Gary Droubay said.
Parnell's announcement did not mention Goldbelt's project.
Mine company Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp. had no comment on the governor's announcement, spokesman Tony Ebersole said.
The governor's office referred press questions to Roger Wetherell, chief communications officer for the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, who said he was not aware of plans to transport mine workers from Cascade Point.
"I don't know what the intentions were other than to widen the road and open public land," Wetherell said.
Those are not adequate justifications for the project, said Alaska Transportation Priorities Project director Lois Epstein.
"The largest question is, does the public get to hear from the administration about really why they're doing this?" Epstein said.
Compared to Seward Highway out of Anchorage, Glacier Highway north of Juneau does not have alarming safety concerns, she said. And if the mine were involved, the governor should have said so in his statement, she said.
"It's important to do things that are actual needs, like deferred and preventive maintenance, before we go ahead and do things that would benefit a specific constituency," Epstein said.
Besides helping Goldbelt gain access to its property, the road extension also improves access for Juneau locals who want to hike, hunt and fish on public land, said state Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau.
Muñoz said even though the first few miles traverse the same ground, the 2.9-mile road supported by the governor is separate from the Juneau Access Road - a controversial 50.8-mile road up the east side of Lynn Canal estimated to cost $491 million.
Muñoz did not want to speculate about what the governor's support means for the larger road project because it faces ongoing legal challenges. A federal judge ruled the Environmental Impact Statement on the Juneau Access Project failed to adequately look at ferry options.
The $5 million would have been better spent on a new ferry, said Southeast Alaska Conservation Council spokesman Mark Gnadt. His group opposes the access road.
"I'm unsure of the importance of spending $5 million dollars to get a couple more miles out of town," he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed Monday that Goldbelt is pursuing projects at Cascade Point, where construction was halted by a lawsuit brought by environmental groups to stop the mine.
The Supreme Court decided in favor of the mine, and now permits for Goldbelt's projects have been reinstated or extended, Corps spokeswoman Pat Richardson said.
Goldbelt holds the contract to transport workers for Coeur by boat to the mine site. They currently take 25 to 60 employees a day from Yankee Cove to Slate Creek Cove, but will take more once the mine is in full operation next year.
Goldbelt is working with Coeur to regain permits and change the embarkation point, Droubay said, and Cascade Point will make the trip shorter and safer for employees.
"Certainly the widening of the road is a critical factor in making it work," he said.
The transportation department already has U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service permits and easements in place to complete the Cascade Point road, Wetherell said. Permit modifications would take 90 to 120 days and provide an opportunity for public comment.
Officials expect to complete the design by next May, begin construction in August and complete the 26-foot-wide, gravel-surface road in July 2011.
• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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