State Transportation Department says it will build safe road

Officials address some concerns of project critics

Posted: Sunday, December 09, 2007

The state Transportation Department said it will design and build a safe highway based on findings of a geological study that shows hazards along the proposed Juneau access road.

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"Hazard by hazard, we are going through and saying OK, do we need to go above it, around it, below it, or through it, and that's how we are using this report," said Reuben Yost, manager for the Juneau access road and ferry project at the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. The 51-mile road would run along the east side of Lynn Canal and connect with a ferry near the Katzehin River, allowing people to travel on to Haines and Skagway.

Critics of the road have said the study, called the Golder Report, raises serious concerns about the safety of the road in terms of potential rockfall, rockslides and landslides.

Yost said that's an erroneous conclusion, because the report will be used to make the road safe.

"We did this study because we want to know what all of the hazards are so that we can design the highway so that we can either avoid them, remove them or mitigate them to the point that the highway would be as safe as any other highway that we maintain in the state," Yost said.

The report identified 112 hazards that include rockfalls, landslides, rockslides and rockslides confined to channels, called debris flows.

The department estimates that, according to the report, only two of those would result in enough material to close the highway for more than a day. Of those, 38 were class "A" hazards.

"Class A hazards happen either often enough that you need to deal with them in design, or they are big enough that even if they happen every 50 years, you want to consider them when you design the highway," Yost said.

As for whether blasting during construction could alarm endangered Steller sea lions, Yost said the department has conducted several years of video observations of the marine mammals and determined what vibration levels are acceptable, "to ensure all the blasting is below levels that sea lions startle at."

Yost said final designs are years off and such design will have to wait until after further geotechnical studies are complete. Also, design will be delayed until resolution of a lawsuit by conservation groups challenging the road on the grounds it did not comply with environmental policies.

"The department has made the decision that until the lawsuit is resolved, we are not going to spend further state funds on further geotechnical work or further designs," Yost said.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Skagway Marine Access Commission, Lynn Canal Conservation, Alaska Public Interest Research Group, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit against several federal agencies in 2006 claiming they did not follow environmental policies when permitting the road.

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