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Sunday, June 20, 2021
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Alaska’s road to recovery



According to Mouhcine Guettabi, an economist with the UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research, it’s very unlikely the Alaska economy will experience a “V-shaped” recovery, where the economy rebounds as quickly as it crashed.

 “It was unrealistic to start with, and we are starting to see we have not completely contained the virus and spending patterns are not just going to rebound,” he said.

Win Gruening

Rather, most Alaskan communities are probably looking at either a “U-shaped” recovery where the economy comes back slowly, or an “L-shaped” recovery.

“The scenario we don’t want to see is an ‘L,’ where we drop in terms of economic activity and basically find a ‘new normal’ at the bottom,” Guettabi said.

That’s why municipalities and state government must preserve and even increase their capital project budgets – to avoid sinking their economies to a level from which they cannot recover.  Now more than ever, Alaska must consider significant infrastructure projects, but especially ones that have already been vetted, like the Ambler Road up north and Juneau Access in Southeast.

Improving surface transportation to and from Juneau has been studied for decades. DOT’s 1986 “Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan,” established northern Lynn Canal as the area most suitable for improvements. This area extends from Juneau (situated on the mainland) to Haines and Skagway, both connected to the continental highway network.

A 1997 Environmental Impact Study documented the inability of the state ferry system to accommodate travel demand.

In late March 1999, a DOT review team evaluated project information and rated transportation alternatives based on purpose and need.  Alternative 2B, a highway up East Lynn Canal with a shuttle ferry at Katzehin, was the highest rated alternative.

In a baffling decision devoid of public input, the process was halted in 2000 by former governor Tony Knowles who instead built two high-speed ferries.  This political stunt proved to be calamitous.  The ships were mechanically unsound, unsuited for Southeast Alaska waters, and extremely expensive to operate.  They were eventually scrapped in an attempt to stem the red ink flowing from the ferry system caused by overly-generous union pay and benefits, declining ridership, and ballooning operating expenses.

The next governor, Frank Murkowski, re-started the process resulting in a finalized EIS in January 2006.   In April 2006, Alternative 2B was reaffirmed as the preferred alternative in the federal Record of Decision.

Predictably, environmental lawsuits seriously delayed implementation and forced DOT through another scoping study and supplemental EIS, finally completed in September 2014. The EIS once again selected Alternative 2B (a road) as the preferred alternative.

Despite increasing public pressure to improve transportation in Lynn Canal, in 2016, the Walker Administration recommended Alternative 1, No-Action – effectively suspending the project.  Although the reason cited was cost, 90% of the construction would have been federally funded, and the state matching portion had already been appropriated several years before.

Fast forward to today.  We can see where caving to anti-growth ideologues has left us.  23 years of resisting Juneau Access hasn’t improved anything – in fact, just the opposite.

Hobbled by aging vessels, cumbersome contract work rules, the effects of a destructive union strike, and inefficiencies, our ferry system is struggling.  This has led to unaffordable fares, unreliable schedules, and unsustainable state subsidies.  While a task force is studying new methods of operation, the ferry system will never function with the frequency, convenience, and low fares that it did 30 years ago.

Alaska’s island communities from Ketchikan to Kodiak rely on ferry service – there’s no more affordable alternative.  But Northern Lynn Canal remains perfectly suited to a surface access solution.

The pandemic has amply demonstrated the need for a low cost, efficient way to move people and goods safely around the region.  A road connection would dramatically reduce freight costs and allow Alaskans and non-cruise visitors to travel independently on their own schedules in their own vehicles at an affordable cost.

Putting hundreds of Alaskans to work building 48 miles of new road would give our struggling economy a much-needed boost.

Projects like the Lynn Canal Highway will help Alaska get back on its feet.

Restarting this project should be an absolute priority for our Congressional delegation, the Dunleavy Administration, and our region.

Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.

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Latest comments

  • Nothing like having a white elephant on your back while trying to negotiate a pandemic.

    • Oh, so now you are saying there is a pandemic. Not a bogus government conspiracy anymore?

  • “..we have not contained the virus..”

    This is an economist speaking?

    Where the hell do we get these people?

  • I appreciate Mr. Gruening’s desire to protect Alaska’s economy and citizens. One thing noticeable, for the last several years, most infrastructure projects, highways, etc., are not being contracted to Alaskans. Out of state contractors, even Canadian contractors, are winning most of the infrastructure contracts from the state. They bring most of their employees with them and leave with the payrolls. Infrastructure is important, for sure. To wholly recover, financially, is a fantasy. To recover the best possible, put Alaskans to work. Letting infrastructure contracts to non-Alaskans may be ‘cost saving’ but Alaskans do not get the jobs. Instead of ‘giving’ emergency funds to non-essential, non-productive “projects” of the left, get Alaskans on the job. That is what our “legislative majority” should be focused on, not taking emergency funds for their pet projects. The “litigators” trying to screw things up, are one and the same with the “legislative majority”.

  • I’ll take a Knik Arm Crossing and a big ole’ eco friendly dam up in the valley first.

  • All the money spent on study after study more than likely would have paid for the road many years ago. Studies began in 1986 it’s now 2020, 34 years ago the money should have been spent on the road instead of all these studies.

  • I have never met Win, but I know plenty of people who have. Everyone says he is good people. That said, he is a leading advocate for perpetuating 1 of the 2 fundamental problems we Alaskans have: Juneau as the capital. We send our 60 legislators to a remote retreat inhabited by public sector employees and infested by non-resident lobbyists. We don’t stand a chance. Makes more sense for the capital to be in Washington. At least you can drive there and the flights for most of the population are cheaper and more reliable. If Juneau won’t support a road, the capital should not be there and Win should support that.

  • Ben Colder, where are you getting your facts regarding infrastructure hire?
    Please enlighten me, having workedin the industry for over four decades I find your statements difficult to believe.

  • Sure, let’s build a road from an existing ferry dock, run it along an avalanche prone cliffside for several miles, build another ferry dock and then sit back and watch as the road is closed most of the winter due to avalanche danger and the ferries still run only now they stop at two ferry docks because the ferry still will run to Juneau’s main dock in town thus obviating any public need for the road anyway..
    Genius, …it’s only public funds, just more millions irresponsibly spent to support some private enterprise’s profit taking.
    The corruption runs deep in Alaska, the home of corporate welfare as a Republican mission statement.

  • When Governor Egan put the ferry system in place is was supposed to be temporary and eventually roads were to be built to minimize necessary ferry travel which is slow, unreliable and expensive.

    The San Juan islands in the state of Washington has a good system as people drive as far as they can have restaurants, motels and other facilities to use to accommodate time until the ferry arrives for the 1/2-1 hour ferry ride and are operated 12 hours a day at a great savings for Washington state

  • Here’s an old idea for a new infrastructure project. How about we build a new Capitol out in the valley and force the legislature to serve the public from a more ‘transparent’ venue? If we’re going to spend billions of taxpayer dollars that we don’t have, might as well make it something that may favorably impact the majority of Alaskans. OK, sorry, just more wishful thinking…..

  • Apparently Gruening does not understand the costs. The state may get 90% of the construction covered by federal dollars. Who pays the maintenance. The state cannot even afford to plow the Haines Hwy when it snows. You can drive a clear Alcan to Pleasant Camp than if it is a weekend the road can be impassable.

  • The already surveyed West Lynn Canal road would probably get more support and would cost a whole lot less — it certainly wouldn’t get as much opposition.

  • Citizens of Alaska,

    Please consider the long-range view for the vitality and sustainability of your incredible state. Nowhere else in the world (save for Patagonia of Chile and Argentina) is there a region with unparalleled potential and opportunity to re-envision a future built with ecological considerations at the core.

    There will soon be (if not already) an influx of ecologically-minded futurists migrating to Southeast to make the last stand of defense of one of the last remaining wilderness areas on earth. I will be one of them.

    Tourism and nature-based industry (not extraction or harvesting of any kind, other than small scale farming, fishing and select timber harvesting) is the only realistic and highest and best use of the region’s assets. Research Natural Capital valuations.

    There are currently no other alternatives. And I’m not talking about jamming the cruise ship sardines into downtown cores… there is an opportunity to solicit independent travelers from around the world. It will pay dividends.. we must be patient and trust in the heart.

    This is not intended to be a political statement. The Democratic party is long dead. The Republican party is long dead. This is about bonafide freedom, and responsibility to protect what does not belong to any of us, but represents the larger synergy of natural order. There is a revolution on the horizon; our glory will be ushering in cataclysmic change

    Cheers to you all! We’ll build a new paradigm together. See you soon, friends-
    A future resident and neighbor from Oregon.

    • Please stay in Oregon with your new paradigm building, ecologically-minded futurist friends. I’m sure you’re all swell people and you sincerely mean well, but seriously, long term bong use simply isn’t good for you.

      • Too late, Kev. Get your head out of the sand, friend, lest risk being left in the dust. Wake up — the world is changing; I’m sure even you can sense that. Alaska is no longer yours to pillage.

  • Is there no freedom on speech on “Must Read Alaska”? Fear is natural.. we must not be afraid of change. As Heraclitus reminds us, “The only constant in life is change”.

    • PC – yes, these comments are moderated. They are not automatically posted. – sd

  • Westside Road is the best solution for ALL of northern panhandle!! Check out the FB group Westside Road.

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