Does Juneau in Southeast Alaska really need this highway?

A proposed road is destructive, dangerous and bound to be ridiculously costly.

 

Juneau, Alaska's capital city, is unique in that it is cut off from the rest of world by a 1,500 square-mile ice field, rugged mountains and the ocean. Transportation for the 31,000 residents of Juneau, as well as other southeastern Alaska communities, has always been by ferries or planes.

Since the early 1970s, many people have pushed for the construction of a road linking Juneau to the outside world. Now, construction of a 51-mile highway is on the verge of becoming a reality. The proposed road would run through Berners Bay and the east side of Lynn Canal, which represent one of the wildest tracts of temperate rainforest left in the world. With five major salmon-spawning rivers, dense populations of brown bears, wolves, mountain goats, moose and other wildlife, the area is the paradigm of Southeast Alaskan wilderness. There's no way a road would not harm it.

Looking north up Lynn Canal. Courtesy Bjorn Dihle.

I'm a lifelong Alaskan who's kayaked, hiked, hunted, trapped, fished, guided and, sometimes, simply wandered Berners Bay and Lynn Canal for more than a decade. Even though it saddens me to think of the wildlife displaced and the integrity and aesthetics of its ecosystem compromised, I understand why some residents want to be better connected to a highway system.

Juneau is the largest city in the United States and the only state capital, excluding Hawaii, that doesn't have road access. But the proposed road, after connecting to the Kensington Mine and providing access to develop other privately owned mining claims, would only lead to the Katzehin River where a new ferry terminal would be constructed. From the new dead end, travelers would board ferries that would shuttle them to Haines or Skagway, where the road system begins.

By building the road, says Jeff Ottesen of the Transportation Department, one or two mainliner ferries could be eliminated, and ferries are hugely expensive. Ottesen said that over a typical lifespan of 50 years, a mainline ferry costs the state $1.72 billion, with only 30 percent of that cost recovered through passenger fares. He says ferries also use more than half of the state's transportation budget, yet they represent only 1 percent of miles.

But for critics of the road like me, the issue is also about economics. The Department of Transportation currently estimates the road and new ferry terminal will cost $523 million to build. Most people opposed to the road think this is a lowball estimate. At the hearing, Clay Good, a high school teacher and lifelong resident of Juneau, cautioned, “I've never seen a project in Alaska -- particularly a megaproject -- that came in anywhere near close to what it was projected.”

The state is planning to construct two additional day ferries, at an estimated cost of around $125 million, and use an existing ferry to shuttle passengers to the greater road system. Around $28 million has already been spent on surveying the proposed road and doing research on the road’s environmental impacts. There is no doubt that both building the road and dealing with its impacts will be costly. Besides invading large mammals' migration corridors and winter range -- which will inevitably result in motorist collisions -- 36 avalanche paths and miles of cliffs must be engineered to accommodate the road.

Adequate avalanche mitigation would also be incredibly expensive. In Lynn Canal the mountains rise from the fjord to 7,000 feet in just a few miles. There is nowhere to fire a howitzer at avalanche paths. Using helicopters to drop explosives would be impractical due to the frequent impossibility of flying during winter, sometimes for weeks. Without building miles of tunnels and using fixed exploders for avalanche mitigation, which would bring the $523 million estimate up astronomically, the road would be a game of Russian roulette for motorists much of the year.

If you combine building the road and maintaining it, adding three ferries and an avalanche mitigation program, it’s no wonder that many critics believe that the project is fiscally irresponsible.

Nonetheless, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell has earmarked $35 million -- most of it to come from federal funding -- in this year's budget to begin extending Juneau's existing road through Berners Bay to the Kensington Mine. If the Legislature passes the governor’s budget, construction could begin as early as this September.

I used to think Southeast Alaska would always have expanses of untouched landscapes for its wildlife and ample opportunities for solitude. To me, that's why anyone would want to visit or live here. If you want roads, there's the rest of the world for you. But the way things are looking for Berners Bay and Lynn Canal, I’m afraid my assumption was wrong.

Bjorn Dihle is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He works as a guide, commercial fisherman and writer based out of Juneau, Alaska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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