Governor Selects No-Build Alternative for Juneau Road Access
By MARY KAUFFMAN
December 18, 2016
Governor Bill Walker and Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott announced Thursday the selection to not build the proposed 50-mile road extension from Juneau to a yet to be built ferry terminal; however, this does not preclude other transportation improvements in the northern Lynn Canal corridor.
Governor Walker acknowledged that many will be disappointed with this decision.
“I am a builder by background and understand the importance of construction projects, but I am very concerned with our current multi-billion dollar fiscal crisis and must prioritize the need for fiscal resolution,” Governor Walker said. “I’m grateful to the many great Alaskans who shared their knowledge and perspectives with me about this issue. I listened and learned from all of you. I flew the route and spoke with lots of folks equally divided on this project. I made this difficult decision after reviewing all litigation and all federal regulatory decisions on this project to date. Above all, I was reminded that Southeast Alaska communities are deeply interconnected, with or without roads, and I pledge to do what I can to support and strengthen those critical economic and social ties.”
Governor Walker will take steps to ensure that the $38 million in remaining state funds for the project will be available for other transportation and capital projects in the area. Governor Walker committed to working with Juneau and the surrounding regional communities to determine the best use of those dollars. Federal construction dollars have not been appropriated for the project.
"I participated in many of the dozens of Juneau Access meetings initiated by Governor Walker,” said Lt. Governor Byron Mallott, a long-time Southeast resident. “The review was exhaustive and thorough. Alaska's need for fiscal certainty loomed large throughout and in that light the correct decision was made."
The state is working closely with federal highway officials and does not anticipate having to repay any federal funds spent to date on the project. The studies and work done to date will be available for future use.
According to Rep. Sam Kito (D-Juneau), Governor Walker originally paused the project in January of 2015 but allowed the completion of the Record of Decision, a federal decision document, in order to assure reimbursement for the work done to date.
"I think the Governor has made the right decision given our current fiscal situation, especially because the increased operational costs would have been added to the Department of Transportation’s budget if one of the build options had been selected,” said Rep. Sam Kito (D-Juneau). “My experience as an engineer has taught me to look closely at promises and pitfalls of any situation and, in balance, the Juneau Access project raised more red flags than green for me.”
The cost of constructing the Juneau Access Road has been estimated at $574 million, with an additional $5 million in annual operating and maintenance costs. In announcing the decision to not build the road, Governor Walker cited the ongoing fiscal crisis in Alaska and the need to send available funding to the highest-priority projects.
“By stopping this project the state can reallocate $38.6 million to the region’s other pressing transportation infrastructure needs,” said Rep. Kito. “I support the Governor’s effort to consult with stakeholders in the region to determine the best use of that money.”
Senator Dennis Egan (D) reacted angrily Thursday to Governor Walker’s decision to stop progress on the Juneau Access project. “I’ve supported this project since statehood. I’m very disappointed my three largest communities will lose the benefit from improved transportation, commerce and tourism,” Egan said. The project, to build 50 miles of highway from Juneau toward Skagway and the continental road system, came to a halt with Walker’s announcement that he selected the ‘no build’ alternative said Egan.
The State of Alaska does not have a project as “shovel-ready” as Juneau Access said Egan. The fact that the project financing was complete and the state’s portion of funds were already appropriated makes this decision by Governor Walker doubly disappointing. Years of planning and millions of dollars’ worth of financial and environmental analysis are now wasted said Egan.
“I had several meetings with the governor to tell him about the benefits to both industry and individuals: jobs, travel, lower freight costs, and better access to and from the state capital,” Egan said. “There’s no disputing it, the jobs this access project would create could have helped stabilize the entire region.”
Speaking to the importance of the Juneau Access project and the loss of federal dollars that go with it, Egan said, “In this day and age when everybody is tightening their belts, it’s difficult for me to understand the thinking that rejects moving forward with jobs and economic growth. This was a necessity, not a want.”
The planning for the Juneau Access Road project dates back to 1993 and over the years several different alternatives were considered. By choosing the no-build alternative, the state of Alaska will not have to repay $28 million in federal funds that have been spent on the project. Additionally, the state will consult with the federal government on how to best reallocate about $6 million in remaining federal earmarks for the project.
Emily Ferry Deputy Director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council wrote in an email "there’s good news for the people of Southeast Alaska. Governor Walker has again killed the Juneau Road Project, proposing to re-route the state funding to support the Alaska Marine Highway System instead of the contested road."
"With this new budget proposal, the Governor wisely reinvests in our existing transportation infrastructure by allocating $38M of state funds to enhancing the Alaska Marine Highway System, instead of spending down state dollars at a time when the entire state is facing an enormous budget deficit." wrote Ferry. "A study by the Governor’s office last year found that every dollar invested in the Marine Highway System resulted in $2 of economic return for the State. With three ferry ships scheduled to be taken offline by 2024, a significant investment in the AMHS couldn’t be more important right now. Put simply, this is the right decision at the right time."
Ferry stated in her email, "A recent poll found that Southeast Alaskans oppose the proposed road by a more than 2 to 1 margin, and that those margins held in almost all major regions of Alaska."
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