A new McDowell Group poll shows that Juneau residents are warming up to the idea of a road to Katzehin River, and a short ferry crossing to Haines and Skagway.
The poll shows that while 54 percent of respondents said they support the project to Katzehin, some 60 percent would really like the project if it went all the way to Skagway. That Skagway option is not currently on the table and has many challenges associated with it, both environmental and cost.
The survey asked more than 400 people with both landline phones and cell phones their views on transportation issues facing the Capital City. The median age of the respondent was 49; the median age of Juneau is 47. Men favored the road more than women: 60 percent of male respondents wanted the road built.
The First Things First Alaska Foundation, which is a pro-road nonprofit group, and the City and Borough of Juneau commissioned the poll. For the Foundation, it was a big risk, according to those close to the group, because the McDowell Group is known to only conduct fair opinion polls, and the chips would have to fall where they may.
One takeaway, said Denny DeWitt of First Things First, is that the opposition to the road has been so vocal for years that the public thought the general sentiment was against the road.
In fact, in 2016 Gov. Bill Walker opted for a “no-build” (also known as “no-access” alternative) to Juneau Access because so many vocal Juneauites, many in his own administration, oppose the road. They comprise the most liberal, isolationist faction of the capital city.
But this first scientific data shows that Juneau as a whole actually favors the Juneau Access Project.
“This is the first true data set where folks are not bullied because they have a difference of opinion. This is the first time they could just answer the question and be safe and secure in their answer, and not be shouted down for it,” DeWitt said.
Those who favor the road have been subject to personal attacks, he said, and people who have private lives don’t revel at the idea of being heckled and booed at meetings. They just stay home.
“Folks are of the most part are saying, ‘I’ll be darned, that’s not what we’ve been told all this time,” DeWitt said. “This was a hell of a big crap shoot for First Things First,” because they sat down with McDowell Group and knew the company wouldn’t sign off on anything but a credible poll.
DeWitt has a point about the public opinion. In 2014, 40 out of 55 people speaking at a public hearing on the Juneau Access Project spoke against the project and only 13 spoke in favor of the 48-mile road, which is slated to cost $574 million. All but 10 percent of the project is federal money that has already been set aside.
Last week both state representatives from Juneau, Justin Parish and Sam Kito III, voted against restoring the state portion of funding that had been reserved for the project, which would bring hundreds of jobs to the Juneau area. The McDowell survey shows them out of step with more than half of their constituents.
While a road to and from the road system out of Haines and Skagway is still controversial, more Juneau respondents liked the concept of a second bridge to North Douglas, known as the North Douglas Crossing. Nearly 8 in 10 surveyed residents support the construction of a second bridge, including a solid 37 percent who strongly support the project. Just 14 percent are opposed.
The number one reason that people cited favoring the second crossing was access.
The ferries for the crossing from Katzehin to Haines and Skagway are already being built in Ketchikan as part of a project developed in 2013-2014, when the state decided to fund the entire ferry build, and turn back federal funds to allow an in-state shipyard to have a better chance at bidding the project. The award went to Vigor Alaska.