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Court Stops Juneau Road Project,
Ferry Options Not Properly Considered


May 04, 2011

(SitNews) - Today the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision that put the brakes on Juneau’s half-billion dollar Juneau Road Project.

“It is the right decision.  The Federal Highway Administration and the Forest Service failed to look at the most obvious alternative, which is to improve access to Juneau using existing ferries,” said Buck Lindekugel, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Grassroots Attorney.  “Why should we build an expensive and unnecessary road - which will still require a ferry connection - when improved ferry schedules, fares and other service could meet community needs?”

jpg Court Stops Juneau Road Project,  Ferry Options Not Properly Considered

Avalanche across the proposed project route.
Photo by Scott Logan
Alaska Transportation Priorities Project

The project, being pushed by the State, would extend an existing dead-end road out of Juneau an additional 51 miles, along a steep, avalanche-prone section of the Lynn Canal fjord.  The road would end at a new ferry terminal near the Katzehin River 90 miles from Juneau.  Here travelers would transfer to a ferry to Haines or Skagway.  The price tag on this road has continually increased, last estimated by the Federal Highway Administration in 2009 at over 500 million taxpayer dollars.

The Court’s ruling makes it clear that improved ferry service between Juneau and Haines and Skagway must be considered, and that the reasons presented for not doing so were “arbitrary”.

 “Ferries are a safe and flexible means of connecting people throughout Southeast, and they are part of the fabric of our community,” said Lindsey Ketchel, SEACC Executive Director. “With the court decision behind us, it is time to put our transportation dollars into the common sense projects that matter most for our communities, such as the ferry system.”  

A recent report by the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, “Easy to Start, Impossible to Finish: Alaska Spends Millions on Roads and Bridges Without Financial Plans to Complete the Projects”, outlines that in a time when Federal funds are declining, the State of Alaska  is dedicating millions of dollars to projects, like the Juneau Access project, that it does not have the financial means to complete.  The report is attached.  

“This decision takes a questionable megaproject off the books and allows the governor to focus on more viable transportation projects, like Alaska class ferries and maintaining roads in the population centers of Alaska,” said Jan Wrentmore, a Skagway businesswoman and chair of the Skagway Marine Access Commission. “This is a positive step forward that will benefit communities throughout our region.”

“The decision reaffirms the State’s obligation to seriously consider for the first time the one alternative that could improve access and save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars:  better ferry service in Lynn Canal with existing boats,” said Eric Jorgensen, an Earthjustice attorney in the case.

According to the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, the proposed Juneau Access Road/Ferry project would consist of 51 miles of new road from Echo Cove approximately 40 miles north of Juneau to the undeveloped Katzehin River via the east side of Lynn Canal, a new ferry terminal at the river 90 miles from Juneau, and new shuttle ferries to travel to Skagway (pop. 865) and Haines (pop. 2,300 in the Borough). Currently a larger ferry serves these two communities operating from a terminal 13 miles from downtown Juneau. Because of concerns expressed by the National Park Service, in 2005 the Federal Highway Administration dropped its original plan to build a road from Juneau to Skagway and instead adopted the road/ferry combination.

The Juneau Access Road/Ferry project will not result in new major economic development in Alaska according to the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project. Average daily traffic projections for the road would be only 380 vehicles/day during opening year and 670 vehicles/day after 30 years.

The state legislature appropriated $5 million in 2005 and $45 million in 2006 to the project, and allowed $9 million of the General Funds money appropriated to be used for other projects in 2007. Of the $200 million in federal funds originally expected to pay for the project, $111 million no longer is available.

As of July 2009, the state has spent $25.2 million on the project.29 Approximately $4.8 million in federal funds and $31 million in state funds for a total of $35.8 million remains dedicated to the project.

According to an independent estimate undertaken by the state, the project would cost over a half-billion dollars, not including likely increases when the challenging construction terrain has been fully surveyed.

Despite the unlikelihood of funding to complete project construction, in December 2009 Governor Parnell announced that he planned to spend $5 million to upgrade the first three miles of the road beyond Echo Cove using the funds appropriated during the 2005 legislative session.

On February 13, 2009, the Alaska District Court ruled that the existing Environmental Impact Statement was inadequate because it did not analyze enhanced ferry service using existing infrastructure, and thus must be revised; the decision calls all issued permits into question. The stateappealed this decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals; the federal government decided not to join in the appeal. Today the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the February 13, 2009, Alaska District Court's decision.

Earthjustice is representing the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Skagway Marine Access Commission, Lynn Canal Conservation, Alaska Public Interest Research Group, Juneau Group of the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.


On the Web:

Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, “Easy to Start, Impossible to Finish: Alaska Spends Millions on Roads and Bridges Without Financial Plans to Complete the Projects” (pdf)


U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Opinion (pdf)



Sources of News: 

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council

Skagway Marine Access Commission

Alaska Transportation Priorities Project

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Opinion

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Ketchikan, Alaska