Norway understands value of roads

Norway is weighing a new innovation – floating tunnels.


Long admired by uber-liberals for its socialistic-style welfare state, Norway is often held up as an example for Alaska to follow — despite its lack of fit with Alaskans’ independent, self-reliant image.

However, I’ll be the first to admit Norway does some things right and similarities abound.

Norway occupies the same latitudes as Alaska, with an Arctic climate in the north and a more moderate marine climate in the south. Its soaring mountains —the highest of which are less than half the height of Alaska’s tallest peaks — are every bit as beautiful. Its rugged coastal terrain and spectacular fjords could easily be mistaken for Alaska’s southeast coast.

Norway’s economy, like Alaska’s, is over-dependent on the oil industry and faces serious pressure due to collapsing oil prices. The country has wisely amassed a large sovereign wealth fund — similar to our Permanent Fund — but unlike us decided long ago to use it to partially offset the cost of government.

Norway views transportation infrastructure differently as well. While Alaska struggles to build a mere 50 miles of road to connect our state capital with the rest of Alaska and the continental road system, Norway has embarked on an ambitious project to re-route and modernize its E39 highway, stretching 800 miles along their west coast, by eliminating all seven ferry crossings along the route.

Predictably, delays have stalled the project, although not for reasons you might suspect. Local mayors campaigned hard to get the new route built through their municipalities, because of the job opportunities the project would create and new residents it would attract. Arguments over the route caused long delays, drawing criticism over the length of the planning process. 

“There have been several different alternatives for the transition ……,” Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg explained. “That has meant it has taken time to go through it. It is a decision that has large local significance. It is clear that where the road goes, it will also give economic injections…”

How different that sounds from the years of delay the Juneau Access project has endured because of environmental opposition and nuisance lawsuits. It’s certainly different than the frantic claims from road opponents that death, destruction and environmental degradation will result by building a road that reduces transportation costs, increases capacity and makes travel more convenient.

It’s interesting that technological challenges in building the East Lynn Canal Highway pale in comparison to those Norway faces in crossing seven different fjords — some over two miles wide and 4,000 feet deep — to provide hard road links the entire length of the route.

Instead of throwing up their hands and saying it can’t be done, Norway chose a visionary process that embraces new technologies to tunnel through mountains, or construct underwater floating tunnels or floating suspension bridges unlike any in the world today.

The reason Norway is investing in a project of this magnitude — a ferry-free main national highway — is because the benefits of doing so far outweigh the cost. The current 21-hour travel time will be cut to 11 hours. Economic expansion will naturally follow resulting in more jobs and an increase in population and tax revenue.

Norway realizes that over time, roads are far less costly in capital and operating costs. Replacing ferry routes with road extensions will greatly increase capacity, frequency, travel opportunity and offer significant travel time and user cost savings. Ferries, because of their limitations, essentially restrict demand, reduce flexibility, and make transportation more costly or prohibitive. Ferry subsidies tend to be very high, increase over time, and continue in perpetuity.

Yet Alaska, facing the same fiscal challenges and sorely needing the economic benefits this road would provide, continues to wrestle with the decision. It’s puzzling why this is so. The federal government would pay for 90 percent of road construction, and the state contribution, already appropriated, is paltry compared to the economic return.

Contrary to opponent’s claims, the Juneau road would not be a “dead-end.” While we cannot make the Lynn Canal Highway a hard road link yet, the benefits of a longer road coupled with a 6-mile shuttle ferry would be enormous, reducing the seven-hour travel time of a mainline ferry to three hours.

Travelers from Juneau could drive to Katzehin and catch a short 27-minute shuttle ferry ride to Haines and beyond. The cost would be $15 plus $4.50 per passenger — 88 percent less than the current $274 one-way ticket for a vehicle and four passengers.

It would also strengthen our existing ferry system, allowing mainliners to serve other ports more frequently while lowering overall system costs. 

From President Eisenhower’s big bet on the interstate highway system to Norway’s groundbreaking project, history continues to favor those who build roads. They will always lead us to greater places.

Win Gruening is retired as the senior vice president of business banking for Key Bank. Born and raised in Juneau, he active in community affairs and is involved in local and statewide organizations.