A controversial 50-mile road extension that aimed to connect Juneau more closely with the Upper Lynn Canal may never come to fruition. Governor Bill Walker announced his decision Thursday, and he’s saying no to the road. The governor’s decision is likely to please many residents in Haines and Skagway.
Walker chose the ‘no build’ alternative for the Juneau Access Improvements project. And no build means no road north of Juneau to the Katzehin River. Proponents say the extension would make travel between Juneau and the Northern part of the state more efficient. But Governor Walker says the state’s financial crisis steered him away from that option.
Skagway Mayor Mark Schaefer says he’s happy Walker has made his decision.
“This community weighed in favor of no road,” says Schaefer. “Although it’s fairly divided decision all over the place.”
Schaefer says the focus now needs to be on the ferry system.
“The road solution was not a solution for the ferry system in general,” says Schaefer. “So I think we need to work hard now in making sure we have a viable ferry system that works well for everybody. I think the government’s well on their way to doing that.”
Walker visited Haines and Skagway in October, and residents in both communities spoke overwhelmingly in favor of ferry reform over the road.
“Once it’s built it may be not a Juneau Access, but a Juneau barrier,” said Haines resident Don Polling.
“What we cannot do is spend half a billion dollars on a road that literally goes to nowhere,” said Skagway resident Deb Potter.
During that visit, Walker stressed that the opinions of community members in the region did matter for his decision making. He spoke with KHNS during that visit.
“I have committed that I will not form an opinion until I’ve met with the residents of the communities that are involved,” said Walker.
Haines Mayor Jan Hill says the community’s input at the October meetings reflect public opinion.
“Whenever we’ve had community meetings or tried to develop the community position on the Juneau Access Road, it has repeatedly come back as we support a safe, reliable ferry system,” says Hill.
Haines Chamber of Commerce President Kyle Gray says Walker’s decision is a step in the right direction.
“The chamber has been pushing a greater, more expanded ferry service. If no road means better ferry, then yeah we’re happy,” says Gray.
But the decision will not please everyone. Haines resident John Norton was one of the few to speak up in favor of the road during Walker’s visit.
“The Juneau Access Project really did meet an important criteria of an environmentally positive footprint for the planet,” said Norton.
Democratic Senator Dennis Egan, who represents Haines, Skagway and Juneau was not happy with the decision. A press release Thursday said he reacted ‘angrily’ to the news. He said “I’m very disappointed my three largest communities will lose the benefit from improved transportation, commerce, and tourism.” He called the project “a necessity, not a want.”
But the district’s Representative in the Alaska House sides with the governor. Sam Kito III says he appreciates Walker’s attention to the financial burden of the project.
“The fiscal circumstances for me reflect fairly well that the governor’s made the right decision in ‘no build,’ then we have the opportunity to look at the marine highway system and our existing transportation network to improve or make our transportation system in Northern Lynn Canal the best it could be,” says Kito.
It’s not officially the end of the road, but Kito says he doesn’t think there’s much the legislature could do at this point to override Walker’s decision.
“As a budget submittal, basically the governor is saying as the executive he’s not going to have his department work on the project,” says Kito. “I don’t believe there is anything besides retaining the match funding in the budget that the legislature currently could do to make the project happen.”
Walker’s FY2018 budget directs the $30 plus million remaining state funding to Juneau and Lynn Canal transportation and infrastructure.
Alaska Department of Transportation Spokesman Jeremy Woodrow says it’s not yet clear what all of the money will be used for.
“About $4 million is to be spent on the Alaska Class Ferry project,” says Woodrow. “Those two ferries, while the construction for them is paid for, there is a little bit of extra money that is needed to outfit the ferries with some items and that $4 million will go toward those ferries when it’s reauthorized.”
The Alaska Class Ferries are two day boats under construction to serve the Lynn Canal.
The governor said he’ll work with communities in the region to determine the best use for remaining funds.