By Win GRUENING
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker’s recent decision to take no action on the Juneau Access Project certainly might have some people dancing in the streets. However, it may be a decision he eventually regrets – not just because of the implications for our state and regional economy but because it was done for purely political reasons – and rarely does good policy come from bad politics.
Anti-road forces helped Gov. Walker get elected and now he has paid them in full. But how this decision benefits our community, our region or the state is hard to see.
The Governor cloaked his decision in bureaucratic doublespeak by saying in part that he was, “very concerned with our current multi-billion dollar fiscal crisis and must prioritize the need for fiscal resolution.”
But Alaskans should realize that Gov. Walker didn’t just say no to building a road – he said yes to continuing operation of ferries in Southeast Alaska with an expensively subsidized, unreliable, aging fleet that simply deepens the hole in which the Alaska Marine Highway System finds itself.
He also caved to the demands of the ferry union who saw the efficiencies and cost savings of a road as threats to their traditional job structure. Gov. Walker has now removed any incentive the ferry unions might have to restructure the system, reduce costs, and make operations more efficient.
The only way to achieve the kind of efficiency and economy in our ferry system that will be acceptable to most Alaskans is to significantly shorten ferry routes by building roads and utilizing day boats.
How is Gov. Walker prioritizing the need for fiscal resolution when he says yes to maintaining the status quo in our regional transportation system – forcing many working people in our region and across the State to choose between unaffordable travel options to our capital city?
By saying no to $500 million in federal transportation dollars, Gov. Walker has not mitigated the fiscal crisis, instead he has further diminished our workforce in the construction trades which will be vital to eventual recovery from our economic recession.
With no state projects of any consequence on the horizon, we can expect workers to head south for jobs and a more welcoming environment – where jobs presumably will be prioritized over political payback.
The anti-road interests have also moved swiftly to make sure that prior appropriations for Juneau Access are zeroed out quickly so that they can truly drive a stake through its heart. It is no coincidence that Gov. Walker’s FY2018 budget has re-allocated most of those dollars to other “undefined” projects in our region.
But didn’t the Governor say we couldn’t afford to spend that money? I guess he meant we can’t afford to build the project he didn’t pick – but we can afford to build other projects – no doubt favored by special interests that supported him.
It is ironic that after a decade of lawsuits, studies and public process, the funding for the one project that Gov. Walker could have built to help our state may end up being siphoned off to a variety of inconsequential projects no one will remember 5 years from now.
Even more ironically, Gov. Walker has said yes to moving much of the funding to Haines and Skagway – two communities with road access that have loudly and vociferously denied Juneau needs a road as well.
Juneau Access was the best opportunity any governor of our state has had to improve the inadequate transportation system in SE Alaska. But Gov. Walker said no to making travel more affordable, facilitating more commerce, lowering freight costs, increasing independent tourism and expanding recreational opportunities.
Instead, Gov. Walker said yes to decreased ferry service, higher fares, and increased subsidies – all dragging on our economy at the very time we need to invest in infrastructure and stimulate our economy.
Unfortunately, Gov. Walker’s legacy will be one of short-sightedness and poor decisions harming our economy instead of nursing it back to health.
Despite this setback, I do not believe the road is dead. The economics supporting it are too powerful to ignore. We will need our next governor to have the foresight and political courage to champion it. Eventually it will be built.
Win Gruening was born and raised in Juneau and retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He is active in civic affairs at the local, state, and national level.