The Legislature convenes in special session this week to tackle the capital budget, those precious few project dollars the State has during this fiscal crunch that allow it to capture federal transportation money for roads, bridges, ports, and airports and, in doing so, provide much needed underpinnings to the Alaska construction industry.
Legislators could make a “Solomon’s decision” this week that will negatively impact Juneau and the rest of Alaska: They could gut the Juneau Access fund at the Department of Transportation and distribute half the money to a ferry system that by next year will require further cuts due to declining usage and a diminished state budget.
No amount of personal income tax can prop up the ferry system at this point. Its union labor costs continue to skyrocket and it’s moving fewer and fewer passengers each year. One third of those passengers are tourists. It gobbles fuel to push a lot of water around for very few Alaskans.
The Alaska Marine Highway System had 19,000 fewer passengers in 2015 than it did in 2006. It ferried 10 percent fewer passengers in 2015 than it did in 2014 (2016 numbers are not readily available). Why? It has become cost prohibitive for families and the system is in a constant state of disrepair.
Juneau Access is shovel-ready, can bring hundreds of jobs to the state, and would reduce the need for long-haul ferries in Northern Lynn Canal. Ferries could be deployed to Sitka, Cordova, Yakutat, and Whittier, for example, rather than being stuck on a canal that parallels a road for the first 25 miles of its voyage, as the route from Auke Bay north currently does.
Juneau Access would link the capital city to the Katzehin River, where drivers and riders would catch a 27-minute ferry ride to Haines, or a slightly longer ferry ride to Skagway.
It’s the best chance for Alaskans to have a road to their capital and better service along the rest of the routes. There’s only one little ferry hop required with Juneau Access — a hop that would run several times a day and be the shortest ride in the system.
The Juneau Access fund at the Department of Transportation has $47 million set aside, which can attract $570 million in federal funds for the 50-mile road.
That’s the plan that the State has pursued for a decade. And yet it is stuck in the mud of politics.
Gov. Bill Walker succumbed to his no-build base and said he’s not building the road to Juneau. He just can’t. Even his union supporters have not been able to budge him off his position, even though the federal government will pay 90 percent of the cost of this project that would employ hundreds of union workers.
The State’s Juneau Access fund has remained whole, and could remain intact for a future governor — one that likes to build things.
Except that now the fund faces a new peril: Downtown Juneau Democrat Sam Kito III is pushing to drain nearly half of the money from the road fund and send it to Skagway for a dock project for the state ferry system.
Why would Walker and Kito make it impossible to bring hundreds of jobs into Alaska in the project that could make the most difference for an entire region today?
Because they’ve bedded down with the environmental lobby.
“That money, in my opinion, can be better used now,” Kito told the Juneau Empire last month. In the meantime, Rep. Justin Parish of Juneau doesn’t have the political chops, nor the will, to protect the Juneau Access fund from his anti-road colleagues. He has been anti-road in the past, and now sits astraddle the issue.
Adding to the economic pain is that the Skagway dock project is far from “shovel ready.” It’s most recent design is for a “bow loading” dock configuration that would restrict the efficient on-and-off movement of cars and trucks and introduce ferry scheduling challenges. A complete redesign at this point would delay the project for years, at a time when Southeast needs the construction work.
Adding further to the economic pain, if the Senate goes along with Kito and the Democrats in the House, a whopping $570 million in federal funding may be reduced or at least substantially delayed.
THE SKAGWAY EXAMPLE
The number of embarking passengers from Skagway tells the story of a dwindling system.
In 2015, just 20,385 people boarded the ferry in Skagway, a decline from 24,000. That’s a 15 percent drop in passengers in seven years.
On a per-day basis, that’s just 56 people boarding the ferry in Skagway; one can assume the same number of people disembark.
Spending Juneau Access’ $21 million on a ferry dock used by 112 people a day is what Kito is proposing, and he’d sacrifice thousands of potential travelers in Northern Lynn Canal — and their revenue to local communities — to do so.
On the other hand, the road alternative studies anticipate that the road to Katzehin, with a 28-minute ferry to Haines, would serve 848 vehicles per day. Vehicles full of one or more people. The vehicle fare to Haines would be $15 and $4.50 for each person compared to the existing $86 for a vehicle and $45 per person for the existing situation. Similar pricing in Skagway means that the costs to and from that town would be halved.
The only way to turn the ferry system around is to increase our road links and decrease our ferry costs where we can. Alaska is never going to build a road to Kodiak or Sitka. Alaskans can, however, build a road to Juneau and help out all the other coastal communities at the same time, all the while making our state’s Capitol more accessible to Alaskans.