Juneau Access priority to state - but not to House Democrats - Must Read Alaska
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Wednesday, September 30, 2020
HomePoliticsJuneau Access priority to state — but not to House Democrats

Juneau Access priority to state — but not to House Democrats

 

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.

[Read: Road to Juneau, better than ferry alone]

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.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Steve Cowper has just moved up on the list of being the worst Alaska Governor as Gov. Walker has taken his place. Mark Begich will have no problem replacing Walker on the Dem Ticket with himself. I actually feel sorry for Bill Walker. He came in to build the Natural Gas line but his ego would not compromise with the Oil Companies to get the job done. Since his failure on the Gas Line he has taken it out on the people of Alaska taking their PFD checks and shutting down Road construction projects the last two years that were fully funded along with the Juneau and Knik crossing projects. A large portion of Alaskans make their money from the summer construction projects and he has taken that away along with their PFD checks putting a large percentage of people in the poverty class . That $800,000,000 plus per year was taken out of the private economy and 10% that was donated to charitable organisations ($80,000,000) is gone and still sitting in an account that he cannot touch unless the Legislators give it to him.

  • The marine unions were in my portfolio for much of my time with the State; they have had the sweetest of sweetheart deals since the System began in ’61. They were the only unions with true collective bargaining power until the passage of the Public Employment Relations Act in ’72 and they liked their deal so well they went all the way to the Supreme Court to try to get out from under PERA (See, IBU v. Hafling).
    They have never voluntarily given up anything they got in those sweetheart deals in the Egan years. Hammond took a bit from them when he changed the ferries from State-owned cruise ships to State-owned Greyhound buses, but that really only effected the unlicensed IBU, the ones who live here, so the licensed units went along with it after suitable remonstrations. Hammond was the only Governor with the balls to put them out on strike but even he didn’t have the balls to keep them on strike and getting them back to work was like the Ransom of Red Chief. Those of us who did labor relations for the State after the Andy Warwick and Bill Hudson excellent adventure with the marine unions spent our careers trying to rein in the marine unions. Then there were always the directors and commissioners who’d give them stuff in exchange for Greg O’Claray’s promise of a good word to the Governor. Lots of people have screwed up their career over a Greg O’Claray promise. I’ll say this about Greg; if you actually had his word, he was good for it, if you only thought you had his word, you were screwed.

    No governor who has or wants the support of the marine unions, and that includes Republican governors, will support a Juneau road. Making Juneau the northern terminus of the mainline system costs the unions a whole bunch of billets. The short haul from the northern terminus of the road can be handled by T-boats that only require a 100 ton Master and a deck hand instead of a full crew of deck officers, engineers, deck hands and unlicensed ABs and OS seamen. The ultimate reality is if the road is built to Katzehin, in a few years the opposition will evaporate and the road will go all the way to Haines and there’ll only be a T-boat or similar to Skagway. It might be that Haines and Skagway will operate their own T-boat or Allen Marine catamaran between the two ports.

    This is pretty much a State policy decision; which town do you shit can? Haines isn’t interested in tourism; it has run the cruise ships out altogether. In economic terms, the Northern terminus of the Marine Highway is Skagway, because the System only makes money in summer by hauling tourists. Haines has a few cool things, but Skagway has Soapy Smith. If you think Juneau is crazy with five cruise ships, you should try Skagway with five cruise ships.

    Anyway, it ain’t going to happen with a Democrat Administration because even though they fundamentally hate each other, the Marine unions and the Greenies will always unite to block a Juneau road and a Democrat governor will never cross the united Marine unions and Greenies. So, the only thing sane people can is not let Walker and Kito put the money somewhere else, so that if we ever establish a legitimate government we can do something intelligent with the money.

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