Alaska Gov. Bill Walker visited Haines and Skagway Friday in what he says was a crucial step toward making a decision on the controversial Juneau Access Road.
Residents who spoke to Walker in both communities were overwhelmingly opposed to building a road and in favor of focusing on the current link between Juneau, Haines and Skagway: the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Gov. Walker began packed meetings in each town with remarks about the state fiscal situation. He painted a sympathetic picture of himself as a leader caught in a tough, unexpected situation not of his own making.
“I think right now I’ve got all the blame pretty much squared up on my back,” Walker said to audience laughter. “And I’m OK with that, that was my deal.”
Walker referenced former Gov. Jay Hammond warning decades ago that there would be a ‘day of reckoning’ if Alaska continued to rely so heavily on oil revenue.
“Well, we are having a day of reckoning. I knew he was right about that, but I didn’t know I would be governor on that day of reckoning.”
Walker spoke in favor of levying a state income or sales tax to ease the gaping deficit in the state’s budget.
“We cannot fix Alaska on cuts alone. We cannot cut our way into a successful future. We have to bring in more revenue.”
Some audience members spoke up about the budget. In Skagway, several people said they supported a state income tax. But the main topic locals weighed in on was the Juneau Access Project.
“That Juneau Access Road is something we cannot afford to do,” said Skagway resident Deb Potter.
“It’s time to bury the idea of a road from Juneau to nowhere,” said Barb Broderson of Skagway.
“It may be not a Juneau Access but a Juneau barrier,” said Haines resident Don Poling.
“Please Gov. Walker, don’t build that road,” said Burl Sheldon of Haines.
The Alaska Department of Transportation’s goal for the Juneau Access Project is to improve transportation between Juneau and northern part of the state.
There are a number of options or ‘alternatives’ in DOT’s analysis of the project. DOT and the Federal Highway Administration prefer what’s known as Alternative 2B. It would extend the capital city’s highway about 50 miles north up the east side of Lynn Canal to the Katzehin River. The road would end at a new ferry terminal. From there, a ferry would take cars and people up to Haines or Skagway. Those towns are on the highway system, so drivers from Juneau could access Anchorage and other areas and vice-versa. The estimated construction cost for that option is $574 million.
As Walker says it, he ‘put the project on ice’ when he first came into office. He put it on hold, but didn’t shut it down.
“There are about eight different options in front of me now,” Walker said. “Option 1, 1B, 1C, 2A, 2B, it just goes on and on. So it’s a little more challenging. So I’ve taken more time, and I don’t apologize for that, because I think the best time to make a decision is when you’ve received all the input.”
At each meeting, members of the local chamber of commerce and borough assembly wore ‘Ferry Reform First’ pins. The buttons summed up many people’s main argument against the road: there is already a system that works. And that is the Alaska Marine Highway.
Haines Assembly member Margaret Friedenauer told Walker that time after time, the local government has voiced support for a sustainable ferry system over a road.
“If you have to go forward in your administration and make a decision about Juneau Access, the borough has historically encouraged the state to consider the marine alternatives,” Friedenauer said. “And I think that’s what a lot of people are saying today, is that you can consider the marine alternatives, which this community and Skagway rely very heavily on.”
Other arguments against the road include how expensive it is, the many avalanche zones on the route, and the environmental impact.
Arguments for the road include the fact that it is about 90 percent federally-funded, it will provide state jobs, and of course, it’ll cut down on travel time between Juneau and the northern part of the state.
There were a couple people in Haines who spoke for the road. John Norton said it would reduce fossil fuel emissions by shortening ferry routes.
“The Juneau Access Project really did meet an important criteria of an environmentally positive footprint for the planet,” Norton said.
It was Gov. Walker’s second visit to Haines during his term and his first to Skagway. He told KHNS he feels ‘close’ to gathering all the information he needs to make a final call on the mega-project. He declined to say if he’s leaning in a certain direction.
But Walker pledged to make the decision in his term, instead of kicking the can down the road to the next administration. He said he knows whatever choice he makes, there will be people who don’t like it. But Walker said the worst decision is no decision at all.