‘NO-BUILD’ WALKER ALTERNATIVE ACCEPTED
This week, the Federal Highway Administration made it official: The Juneau Access Project will stay in an induced coma — for now.
After Gov. Bill Walker chose the “no action” alternative for the Northern Lynn Canal route, the agency published its record of decision, a procedural matter, but also a symbolic blow to the infrastructure project.
“Improving Juneau access continues to be a priority for us,” said Walker in a statement issued by the Department of Transportation. “But the practicality of this project – a road extended to a yet-to-be-built ferry terminal through more than 40 avalanche zones, with a history of litigation – that makes it difficult to justify these kinds of expenditures as we focus on a sustainable fiscal future for Alaska.”
The demand to travel the Lynn Canal corridor is 10 times what the current ferry system can accommodate, and the ferry system is becoming increasingly unviable due to maintenance, union contracts, and the high cost for both travelers and the state budget. Ferries are routinely held in port because of needed repairs, and are extremely expensive.
A family of four traveling on the ferry from Juneau to Skagway in a family-sized vehicle pays about $636 to travel one way, $1,272 for a roundtrip. Yet that family only pays for about one third of the cost of their travel on the ferry; the rest is funded by the State of Alaska.
Driving to Skagway would cost that family $50 in gas. Driving to Katzehin and taking a short ferry to Haines or Skagway would cost less than $200. The State subsidies would be substantially less than what is now used to service the Northern Lynn Canal ferry routes.
When Walker was elected, he was pressured by environmentalists to suspend work on the environmental impact statement for the road, something the Parnell Administration had advanced. Now, Walker has directed the Department of Transportation to complete the EIS with the no-build alternative, an action that will prevent the State from having to pay back millions of dollars to the federal government.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Because Walker chose the no-build alternative, he’s left the door open for a future governor to change direction and call for the EIS to be written once again for the road alternative. It would take six months to rewrite the EIS and another year to secure permits. Road building would not occur for several years due to expected lawsuits from environmentalists.
A McDowell Group poll this year found that 54 percent of Juneau residents support extending Juneau’s road north to the Katzehin River, where a ferry would connect travelers to Haines and Skagway. Thirty-nine percent remain opposed to the project.