By TOM WILLIAMS
Last December, I penned an MRAK column challenging Gov. Mike Dunleavy to ensure his administration accomplishes a critical infrastructure project for Alaska, namely a ferry terminal at Cascade Point, 33 miles north of the existing Auke Bay terminal.
While the Dunleavy administration has made some limited progress on this project, the apparent lack of urgency by Gov.Dunleavy’s Department of Transportation is very troubling.
This project has been slow-rolled by DOT despite being fully funded and potentially construction ready. It makes one wonder if this is by design or by a lack of leadership.
Notwithstanding DOT’s extremely slow progress to date, Governor Dunleavy still has an excellent opportunity to not only exhibit leadership but to actually accomplish a ready-to-go critical infrastructure project that is of significant benefit to all Alaskans, not just those in SE Alaska. So, let’s review just why the Governor should make sure it happens without any further delay by asking a few critical questions.
Why is a Ferry Terminal at Cascade Point worth doing?
The principal reasons are:
- It eliminates approximately 30 miles of a ferry run that parallels an already existing highway, most of which has been improved in the last several years. That shaves 60 miles off of each round trip;
- It reduces operational costs for the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), allowing scarce state AMHS dollars to be spent on routes that do not have roads;
- It shortens the travel time between Alaska’s State capital Juneau and the road system, as well as Haines and Skagway. That is a positive result not only for the residents of those three communities, but for all Alaska residents and visitors passing through SE Alaska.
- It enables the Alaska Class Ferries, specifically designed for the routes between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, to be utilized as designed without expensive modifications; and
- The resulting improvement to regional transportation will provide increased economic opportunities for the region and the state, since hard transportation infrastructure is always a critical element for and almost always leads to economic prosperity.
Just how will this project increase regional and statewide prosperity?
- Southcentral and interior Alaska businesses already know that efficient and cost-effective transportation systems are critical to their economic health and prosperity. The AMHS is a critical element for their businesses, especially as it relates to tourist traffic. Reducing the travel time and increasing transportation reliability within the northern Lynn Canal corridor will allow for increased commerce between Southeast Alaska and the rest of the State as well as the Canadian Yukon and British Columbia. As such this necessary improvement to the operation the AMHS directly benefits the statewide economy, while putting Alaskans to work constructing the terminal and other related improvements.
Is there funding for a ferry terminal at Cascade Point?
- Yes. Several years ago, the legislature appropriated $42 million of state funds to improve Juneau access. Those funds are still available to pay for this project. Right now. No additional legislative approval is needed. But some legislators would like to use those funds for projects in the own districts or to bolster the current unsustainable AMHS model.
Wouldn’t it be better to spend those funds to match federal funding for a road out of Juneau up Lynn Canal rather than a ferry terminal at the north end of the exiting road?
- Unfortunately, inasmuch as that project has been proposed, discussed and worked on for more than 50 years without success, the reality is that it is highly unlikely that a road up Lynn Canal will be built anytime in the foreseeable future without a restart of the environmental permitting process.
- In the near term, the Biden administration is likely to oppose it even if Juneau, Haines, and Skagway all agreed to support it. But even if a road up Lynn Canal were to move forward, a ferry terminal at Cascade Point would provide a backup should there be road closures for any reason, as called for in the Juneau Access scoping documents.
Cascade Point is owned by Goldbelt, an Alaskan Native Corporation, and not the State. So how can the State have a ferry terminal on Goldbelt’s land?
- Goldbelt, as a willing and able partner for this project, has offered at a reasonable cost a long-term land lease to the State for the ferry terminal. In addition, at one point DOT asked if Goldbelt would be interested in building the terminal to lease back to the state. Goldbelt has advised the State that Goldbelt would be very willing to provide the State a such a proposal.
Has Goldbelt provided DOT such a proposal?
- To provide a proposal, Goldbelt needed some terminal criteria from DOT. After many months DOT finally provided Goldbelt some criteria and Goldbelt is providing their proposal to DOT.
Is there political support for a ferry terminal at Cascade Point?
- Absolutely. Governor Dunleavy’s Alaska Marine Highway Working Group lead by Admiral Barrett, the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, the Alaska Committee, First Things First Alaska, and the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 302, in addition to Governor Dunleavy himself, are all on the formal record as supporting this project. In addition, Senate President Peter Micciche, Senate Transportation Committee Chair Rob Meyer, northern southeast Sen. Jesse Kiehl, Juneau Rep. Andi Story, Haines Mayor Doug Olerud, and Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon have all expressed various levels of support. Previous DOT staff charged with analyzing the project have also been supportive.
Is there political opposition to a ferry terminal at Cascade Point? If so, why?
- While I have not identified any formal opposition to the project, the ferry unions and those politicians who would prefer to use the funds elsewhere for their own benefit are the likely suspects.
The ferry unions and some politicians appear to want to throw money at an unsustainable ferry model rather than make necessary changes to improve service while reducing costs. But a terminal a Cascade Point does just that. It allows for improved service while reducing costs in both the short and the long term.
In addition, given DOT staff’s slow performance in moving the project forward, it appears that there is likely opposition to the project within the upper to mid-levels of the DOT bureaucracy.
Recently the governor stated on KINY Radio that he supports hard infrastructure projects. Well Governor, a Cascade Point ferry terminal is a fully funded, common sense, budget-wise, politically supported, and beneficial project that you, as Governor, can make happen.
Don’t let the naysayers convince you that Cascade Point is something that can wait for a second term. Successful leaders do not procrastinate or squander silver platter opportunities. This project can and should happen now. It is a win for all Alaskans, you and future generations. “Carpe diem,” Gov. Dunleavy. Exercise some leadership by ensuring your DOT bureaucracy makes it happen without any further delay.
Tom Williams is a 44-year resident of Juneau with both private sector and public sector management and financial experience, including 18 years of Alaska executive and legislative branch service.