My Turn: Juneau construction projects are uplifting, inspiring

  • By Ben Brown
  • Sunday, November 1, 2015 1:00am
  • Opinion

When one goes about the capital city these days, it is impossible not to be inspired and uplifted by all of the exciting construction of new buildings alongside the renovations to and improvement of many important existing structures.

The new Father Kasheveroff Alaska State Library, Archives & Museum is moving ever closer to completion, and clearly will be one of Juneau’s most striking architectural features for generations to come when it opens next spring. The state Capitol is undergoing extensive remodeling to make it safer and stronger, and to open up needed space for the Alaska Legislature to work effectively and interact with Alaskans. The timing of the funding for these two key pieces of infrastructure could not have been better, with all funds necessary for both projects’ completion fully appropriated before the capital budget shrank to next to nothing this past session.

Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Walter Soboleff Center is completely finished and operating, a stunning addition to the heart of downtown Juneau. The installation of the two Preston Singletary glass pieces in front of the main posts in the Clan House Room are recent enhancements to this beautiful facility, which occupies space that sat far too long empty and unused. Down at the other end of Front Street a blighted property is moving toward long being livable once again. The owners of the Gastineau Apartments have found a buyer, and instead of requiring city money to be torn to the ground private developers are looking to bring in much-needed housing.

The well-lighted corridor of Egan Drive has never looked better maintained than this year, and it takes one out the road to the newest iteration of the Brotherhood Bridge, which after a trying year and a half of one-way traffic and other obstructions has just been rededicated. Now a full four lanes, this Mendenhall River crossing is safer and sturdier, and visually quite appealing. Care was taken to preserve and restore the medallions gracing the sides of the bridge, in celebration of the Alaska Native Brotherhood. At a cost of $40 million, rebuilding the Brotherhood Bridge was a serious technical undertaking requiring a great deal of skilled labor, and the same is true of all construction that has gone on around town over the past few years. Every one of these projects puts many people to work and gives them the means to support their families and participate in Juneau’s economy.

The people who rebuilt the Brotherhood Bridge, those who are rebuilding the state Capitol and those putting the finishing touches on the SLAM are for the most part our neighbors and fellow Juneau residents. As the state’s capital budget appears likely to stay very small for at least the next few years, one must consider what construction work will be available to keep Juneau’s workforce gainfully employed over this period. The Juneau Access Project is really the only large project that will be available given the budgetary situation, because it is largely funded with federal highway moneys, and because it is far enough along that the contribution still to be made by the state of Alaska is very small. No more than $4 million is needed to complete the state’s required match, which will allow hundreds of millions of federal dollars to pay for this timely and worthwhile project.

Those seeking for Juneau to remain forever separate and disconnected from the North American road system have succeeded in forcing the Juneau Access Project to be scaled into a road to the Katzehin River for the time being. The current plan for short-haul ferries to Haines and Skagway will work perfectly well for the time being. Once the road has been built out to that point and used successfully by Alaskans, it will ultimately be built out to connect Skagway. The time is now to undertake continuing the excellent work that has been done thus far getting the highway extended all the way to Echo Cove as far north as possible.

There really is nothing else of the scope and magnitude of the Lynn Canal Highway for the construction trades in Juneau. It would be such a tragic loss of increasingly scarce economic opportunities if it is halted in its tracks. Juneau can’t afford to lose out on these direct expenditures or the huge amounts in wages and sales tax revenues that will ripple through the economy. The final state payment does not even need to be made in the current budget cycle, but can be paid as the project nears completion in several years. The road to Juneau is an idea whose time has finally come, which is also at a moment when it couldn’t be a better thing for the economic picture in Southeast Alaska.

• Ben Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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