My Turn: The questionable economics of Juneau access

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, January 29, 2016 1:01am
  • Opinion

Just as the Empire predicted in its first editorial of 2016, “The Road” has again made headlines.

The first salvo of the Juneau Access controversy was fired by Danny DeWitt, the executive director of the First Things First Alaska Foundation. He had a receptive Juneau Chamber of Commerce audience to present the road’s potential economic benefits. And that was made easier by peddling government-endorsed traffic forecasts as facts.

The findings DeWitt presented came from a December 2015 report prepared by the McDowell Group. They’ve been studying the potential impact of a road up Lynn Canal for more than two decades.

However, the long-term boost to Juneau’s economy they touted is entirely dependent on the accuracy of the projected traffic increase in the Lynn Canal corridor. Twice before has the McDowell Group estimated that travel demand. But in this case, they deferred to an analysis by the consulting firm Fehr & Peers, which came from the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the Alaska Department of Transportation.

As I argued in my column on Oct. 2, 2014, the methodology Fehr & Peers used was like an exercise in statistical gymnastics. And Smart Mobility, Inc., a Vermont-based firm that develops regional travel demand models for projects around the country, also determined the “travel forecasts are based on invalid models” and “the errors in the forecast process compound in each step and the final result is highly inflated.”

Why didn’t DOT use the analytical methods Norway applied for eliminating ferries on route E-39, a 700-mile-long coastal highway along terrain like Lynn Canal. After all, in a memo to Gov. Bill Walker, former DOT Commissioner Pat Kemp defended the Juneau Access Project by arguing how Norway “targeted their ferry services for replacement with highways, bridges and/or tunnels.” His staff referenced those same projects in a presentation to legislators a year earlier.

So I checked out Norway’s accomplishments and goals on E-39. Aside from operating in a similar geographical environment, their ferry system bears little resemblance to ours in Southeast Alaska.

First of all, the E-39 corridor serves more than a 1.5 million people. They reside in more than 100 different cities and villages connected by an existing road network that branches off in many directions. And the region generates about half of the country’s traditional exports.

Norway hasn’t replaced ferry routes by building roads along mountainous terrain where no one lives. The ones they’ve eliminated were links more like the proposed shuttle ferry from Katzehin to Haines than the mainline run up Lynn Canal. The difference is they have real traffic demands.

The five-mile long Bømlafjord Tunnel and Stord Bridge replaced a ferry that transported 480,000 vehicles in its last year of operation. The mile-long Nordhordland Bridge replaced two shuttle ferries at Salhusfjorden. A three-mile-long undersea tunnel and two bridges were the main features of a project that eliminated three ferry links to the island municipality of Kristiansund.

And unlike the proposed Juneau Access Project, which would be free to travelers, Norway charges tolls on these routes to recover part of the construction costs.

This is the same approach they’re taking for the remaining eight ferry crossings on E-39. None include new highway construction. In any case, according to Norway’s Institute of Transport Economics, only one “may be considered economically efficient.”

So it’s pretty obvious why the McDowell Group and Fehr & Peers never attempted to use Norway’s traffic forecast methods as a model for the Juneau Access. But now I’m questioning why DOT even referenced “Norway’s ambitious effort to systematically reduce ferry crossings,” especially since even if those last eight ferries were eliminated, there would still be a hundred others operating in the country.

Undermining their own credibility this way has added further justification for questioning the traffic estimates they’ve used to sell this project to the public.

I’m not arguing that there won’t be any economic benefit by building the highway up Lynn Canal. But as a short-term stimulus, it’ll only delay the inevitable fall of a more permanent nature. Indeed, the most ardent road proponents would likely become the loudest opposition to restoring state jobs lost from the big cuts in our government’s operating budget.

And we shouldn’t be banking on the long-term benefits forecasted by the McDowell Group, either. They’re based not only on questionable projections of how many new visitors will come to Juneau, but the entire project development process is suspect. It’s a reminder why we must challenge any government bureaucracy eager to spend hundreds of millions of our taxpayer dollars.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.

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