My Turn: Easy to say, impossible to believe

  • Thursday, March 31, 2016 1:01am
  • Opinion

The environmental community’s latest salvo attempting to torpedo the Juneau Access Project has arrived. Like numerous other attempts sponsored by the Wilderness Society, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, and others, it’s full of false assumptions and statements disguised as facts. With the grand title of “Easy to Start, Impossible to Finish IV”, it lumps four major Alaska construction projects together and would have us believe none of them are worth pursuing.

Written by Lois Epstein, who has worked for environmental organizations for over 25 years, this is the fourth edition of a series dealing with statewide projects. The first edition, published in 2010 by the benignly named Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, panned five projects including Juneau Access and was 11-pages long. This latest effort — slimmed down to four projects (the Ambler Road, Juneau Access, Knik Arm Bridge and the Susitna Dam) — has grown to 26 pages. None of the assumptions or conclusions have changed; in her view, none of these projects should be allowed to continue because they are too expensive.

Ms. Epstein’s cost analysis basically consists of combining the potential costs of all four projects ($7.83 billion) and from there, leaps to the conclusion the state cannot afford any of them since funding for an amount this large would be impossible to achieve. She states existing project appropriations could fund other more needed state infrastructure projects. What projects those might be she fails to mention. While seeming to favor maintaining existing infrastructure, I could find no evidence she has ever advocated for any new transportation projects in the state. Unfortunately, if some new projects are not built, the state will eventually lose federal matching dollars.

What is wrong with her analysis, especially as it relates to Juneau Access?

To begin with, it treats all these projects the same regardless of their history, cost or stage of development. Juneau Access — building a connecting highway up Lynn Canal — has been studied for over 50 years, remained on the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) list for over 20 years, and finally is ready to begin construction. Its total cost ($552 million) would be funded through routine annual federal transportation appropriations. Over its six-year construction life, approximately $83 million annually would be needed, which represents about 16 percent of the federal transportation dollars flowing into the state each year. If needed, the construction could be spread out over 10 years to reduce the federal requirement. The balance of funding (the state portion) has already been appropriated and therefore wouldn’t impact the state budget.

Any serious analyst of major projects would discuss both costs and advantages, but Ms. Epstein dismisses any potential economic benefits. Not mentioned in this edition, she confines her entire economic analysis of Juneau Access in a prior edition to one sentence saying, in part, “Projected traffic on the road/shuttle ferry system would be low…” Yet, the SEIS completed by the state says just the opposite, with summertime traffic exceeding 1,300 cars per day. In addition, a recent project study completed by McDowell Associates enumerates considerable economic benefits:

• Resident travel: Ferries now only meet about 7 percent of total travel demand in Lynn Canal. Road access will dramatically lower travel costs and increase capacity. Travel costs for a family of four to Skagway, for example, would be lowered 76 percent to $74 and vehicle capacity would increase over ten-fold.

• Economic opportunities: Vastly improved access between Juneau and northern Lynn Canal (Haines, Skagway and Whitehorse) will create new opportunities for business and travel especially in healthcare, recreation and tourism. Significantly, 165,000 new visitors annually could be expected in Juneau and approximately 100,000 in both Haines and Skagway.

• Tax revenues: Due to increased visitor spending, CBJ could expect $1.2 million in additional tax revenues.

• Freight costs: The use of overland trucking to ship fresh fish could lower transportation costs by half over air freight.

• Alaska Marine Highway System: Future AMHS cuts threaten all communities dependent on this service. The Lynn Canal Highway would lower overall ferry system costs and provide consistent low-cost transportation options.

This project would provide these benefits plus pump over a half billion dollars into the Alaska economy while creating 530 jobs with hundreds of millions of dollars in payroll during construction — jobs that would greatly mitigate expected jobs losses from future state budget cuts.

The construction-related benefits of the Lynn Canal Highway are important and timely, but longer term benefits created by improved transportation in our region remain the fundamental reason for its construction.

As the Walker Administration is besieged by environmental groups determined to halt construction of the Lynn Canal Highway at any cost, Alaskans can only hope reason will prevail and the governor will make the right decision — one based on facts, not emotion and half-truths.

• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and is active in community and statewide organizations.

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