Juneau Access Road gets a reprieve
In Juneau, it’s simply called “The Road.” But everyone from Juneau to Haines to Skagway knows what it refers to: the Juneau Access Improvements Project, which has divided the region for more than two decades.
After Gov. Bill Walker, in an attempt to get control of a runaway budget, put the brakes on six megaprojects — including the Juneau road — it appeared it had perhaps finally run out of gas.
But at a House Transportation Committee meeting on Tuesday, there were signs the project may see some more mileage.
Marc Luiken, the transportation commissioner, told members he would recommend completion of the environmental review phase of the project to the governor.
And with good reason.
If the environmental work isn’t completed, Luiken told the committee, the state risks having to pay back the federal government as much as $27 million for money it has already spent on the project.
Rep. Cathy Munoz, a Juneau Republican, does not serve on the transportation committee, but was following the proceedings.
“It does not make good sense to stop in the middle of the road, literally,” Munoz said. “We need to complete the process. That’s what we do with all federally funded projects.”
“Is there a logical pause point in the project?” asked Pat Pitney, the governor’s budget director, who told the committee she also supports the commissioner’s recommendation to complete the environmental studies. “What it does is preserves all the work up to date and allows us several years to decide where we want to put the money in.”
Although one preferred route has been identified, there are others under consideration — and road supporters say the environmental studies could impact the final outcome.
If the environmental review is discontinued, supporters also say, the work might have to be done all over again in the future.
The committee took testimony from both supporters and opponents of the project, familiar voices that have been heard often over the years.
Opponents have long complained the road would cut through sensitive wildlife areas. Others believe, beyond construction, it would be a budgetary black hole that will suck up state resources, such as road maintenance and avalanche control.
“I just think it’s a bad project in a time of shrinking budgets,” said Rich Moniak, a retired civil engineer. He said one way to find out how badly Juneau wants the road is to simply “ask Juneau-ites to pay for it, since they are the primary beneficiaries. The demand will go away.”
Tom Brice, who represents unions, talked about how a more efficient transportation network would help the entire region’s economy — moving people, freight and equipment more efficiently and for less cost.
“Currently, it takes close to seven hours to travel between Juneau or either Haines or Skagway,” he said.
Economist Gregg Erickson testified that the cost/benefits ratio of construction costs for the Juneau road, estimated to be north of a half-billion dollars, is way below the standard.
“It’s amazing it’s still on the table,” Erickson said.
Even if the road were to be extended by 50 miles as proposed, it would still require ferry terminals to be built, because ferries would be needed to carry travelers to Haines and Skagway. But supporters say it would significantly cut travel time.
Since it began, the Juneau Access Improvements Project has had many twists and turns. And Alaska’s governors have had a lot to do with that.
Tony Knowles suspended work on the project. Frank Murkowski fired it up again. Sarah Palin reversed course and Sean Parnell steered it back again.
For now, Walker appears to be willing to let the project coast a little longer, using $800,000 in funds that have already been allocated for the environmental review — a much better deal than handing $27 million back to the feds.