Road to Juneau: Numbers are better than ferry alone

Juneau: The capital that Alaskans can’t afford to visit. / Alaska DOTPF photo



Normally I wouldn’t take time to respond to a My Turn in the Juneau Empire, but in this case Rich Moniak’s My Turn on Sept. 25, along with the Alaska Dispatch News article he references, are clearly political push-pieces designed influence Gov. Bill Walker’s decision on constructing the road to Juneau.

While I don’t take issue with Mr. Moniak or anyone else who doesn’t want the road for their own personal reasons, I do take issue with distortion of facts and figures simply to obscure the truth in the court of public opinion.

Mr. Moniak claims the return on investment for the road has a negative cost to benefit ratio. Where was this number ginned up? Over what time period did he calculate the return? Does he understand that a road returns its value in perpetuity?

At best this claim is misleading and a statistical distortion. Currently it costs $299 to place a car on the ferry to Skagway. At $3 a gallon, traveling to Skagway would cost about $15 to get to the Katzehin ferry terminal. A short haul ferry would cost, say, an additional $50. Total savings: $234, or $468 round trip.

I bet these are the numbers that matter to young families. Of all the things one could use as an argument against building the road, this is easily the most ridiculous.  The 28 cents (return on investment per dollar spent) he cites is one of those “Bridge to Nowhere” labels some opposition group obvoiusly hopes sticks.

One of the great tragedies in this debate is that pro-road folks are labeled anti-ferry. This is absurd. We all know ferries connecting communities in Southeast Alaska are essential. However, we also know roads are the single biggest efficiency driver; that’s why none of us paddle our kayak to work or take a canoe to pick up the kids after school.

We know roads are the single biggest efficiency driver; that’s why none of us paddle our kayak to work or take a canoe to pick up the kids after school.

Yet Moniak suggests we should stick with a 1950’s infrastructure in perpetuity. Are we to accept that no further progress will ever be acceptable?

Next, let’s address the “cutting the cost of state government” comment. I’m sure it’s an unintentional oversight, but the nearly the entire road is paid for through the federal highway funds, and it is simply waiting the governor’s signature to proceed.

Road construction will provide 300-plus high paying jobs in Juneau, Skagway and Haines over a 10-year period. Businesses and schools all benefit from these jobs, as does every community member who enjoys the benefits of a healthy regional economy. If Gov. Walker had no other reason to proceed in light of the State’s financial woes, this is reason enough.

Juneau has an aging population and struggles to attract young families, living wage jobs, new businesses, tax revenues, healthy schools and affordable housing. Here we have a half-billion-dollar project, funded and ready to proceed, which would help offset the state’s economic woes and make living in northern Southeast Alaska easier for everyone — and we are expected to think this is a bad thing?

Mr. Moniak says the road would cost $5 million more to maintain than the state currently spends maintaining ferries. The fuel savings and revenue from the short haul ferries would significantly offset that figure.

And what about the ever increasing maintenance costs of our aging ferries? With the Taku offline year round, the Malaspina out of service, the Columbia recently off line for emergency repairs and the fast ferries off line for the winter, how can anyone argue that our growing transportation demand can be met, let alone improved with a worn out fleet of mainline ferries that are a half century old?

Finally, Mr. Moniak says, “Walker can avoid a long and expensive path,” referring to the inevitable lawsuits and conveniently ignoring the cost of replacing the current long haul fleet. Really? I guess your message to the governor is it’s high time Alaska hang up the shingle and proclaim, “Alaska is closed for business.”

Gov. Walker has many difficult decisions on his plate, but this shouldn’t be one of them. Building the road will get more people working, allow better access to all ferry service communities, prevent Southeast Alaska from being a further drain on the state and provide much needed infrastructure improvements that will serve all Alaskans forever.

Guest opinion writer Bruce Abel is the owner of Don Abel Building Supply, past president of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and past president of Western Building Material Association.