Kito: Will There Be Enough Return On Juneau Access To Justify Investment?

Last summer a ribbon-cutting opened three more miles of Glacier Highway and construction continued to improve existing stretches. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)
Last summer a ribbon-cutting opened three more miles of Glacier Highway and construction continued to improve existing stretches. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

The draft supplemental environmental impact statement for a road out of Juneau is now under review by the Federal Highway Administration. That’s the last step in the process before federal highways names a preferred route and issues a Record of Decision.

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State transportation department spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said the final SEIS, as it’s called, is expected sometime in the next six weeks.

“If it gets the blessing and we don’t need to do anymore revisions on it, we’ll stamp ‘draft’ on it and we can release it for public review.”                       

Once that happens, DOT would hold hearings in Juneau, Haines and Skagway.

Federal highways issued a Record of Decision in 2006 to build a road between Juneau and Katzehin, where motorists would board a state ferry for the rest of the trip north.

Conservation groups immediately filed suit. In 2009, the U.S. District Court ruled the environmental impact statement was invalid, because it didn’t consider improved ferry service in Lynn Canal. That decision was upheld in 2011 by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, requiring the supplemental study.

Little by little, however, the road north has grown, completed last summer to Cascade Point. This year $35 million is in the state’s budget for another extension. Woodrow said federal funds account for $30 million dollars and $5 million comes from the state.

“The talking point was that that would help us begin constructing the road toward Kensington (mine),” Woodrow said. “And really how this road’s going to be built, no matter what, is it’s going to be constructed in phases. It’s just such a large project.”

It’s one of those mega projects the state may not be able to afford, according to  Juneau Rep. Sam Kito III. He told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Thursday that Juneau Access has a lot of competition for funds statewide.

Kito is a civil engineer and said he likes big projects. But he wondered about the return on the estimated $500 million investment.

“Do we receive 500 million dollars’ worth of commerce or revenue back to the state or the city? I think that’s a tough one to support.”

Kito didn’t curry much favor with the chamber audience. The business organization and most of its members have long been road advocates.

He said he didn’t have strong personal feelings on building or not building the proposed road, which would not replace ferry use for the trip to Haines or Skagway.

“There may be some savings because the ferry is operating as a day boat as opposed to a 24-hour ferry, but there’s still ferry costs. Which means you still have 12-hours’ worth of fuel, you’re not going to be running full all the time, there may be ferries that are running mostly empty, and then you’re going to have an additional 65 miles of road to maintain,” he said.

Kito’s questions and concerns should be answered when federal highways releases the final SEIS and Record of Decision sometime this summer.

Rosemarie Alexander is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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