Access to Juneau and Southeast Alaska has been an issue for a long time. We need good, inexpensive, reliable access to and from our communities. I was fortunate to serve Juneau, and then a larger part of Southeast in the statehouse for 15 years. During that time I heard a lot about access and about a road out of Juneau.
A number of different options for a link from Juneau to the rest of North America have been proposed. Both the west and east side of Lynn Canal have been pitched. A road up the Taku River has been considered. Linking the road to a ferry terminal, running it all the way to Skagway, even implementing a rail line has been suggested.
In 2014, the preferred alternative — the East Lynn Canal route — would extend the road north of Juneau an additional 50.8 miles, but would end several miles short of Skagway. It’s really a road to a ferry, because it would require the construction of a new ferry terminal, with ferries leading to other ferry terminals, but could pose dangers to residents (anticipated 14 traffic fatalities in the next 30 years) and harness the state with costly maintenance — in addition to the estimated $680.2 million it would cost to build in the first place.
The route would cross 43 avalanche paths. Think about the avalanche danger on the road to Thane in the winter, and multiply it. To keep it both safe and accessible, it would require constructing barriers and snow sheds, implementing avalanche forecasting and warning systems, temporary highway openings and closures, and using explosives to trigger unstable snow before it builds up. And that’s just the winter: Southeast Alaska is a global hotspot for some of the planet’s most enormous landslides and rock avalanches, thanks to our steep mountains and shifting tectonic plates. When faced by the ruggedness of our landscape, the functionality of the road becomes deeply questionable.
What is the solution?
First, I want to say that I relate to the desire to drive out of Juneau. One time when my father was ill and in an ER outside, I spent two days at the airport, fogged in. I just wanted to get in a car and drive — of course this would ultimately take more time, but at least I would be moving … at least I would be doing something. I am also very aware that travel out of Juneau is much too expensive for many. We must have more affordable access.
The way to provide it is to improve our ferry system and to reduce the cost to use it. We not only help ourselves, we help the whole Southeast region.
We need a robust, well-funded, and intentionally planned ferry service that we can all rely upon. The Marine Highway System already provides an essential link for Alaskans, allowing them to travel between communities and access everything from hospitals to grocery stores to DMVs. The marine highway is expensive to maintain — but so are land-based roads. We need to support our ocean road.
The new Record of Decision by Federal Highways, and the Alaska Department of Transportation’s Final EIS, which picked the “no action” alternative — not building a road, but supporting the marine highway, provides a unique opportunity to move beyond the divisive issue of the road and work toward a real solution to enhance access to communities throughout the state.
I’m tired of divisiveness. I know that if we spend over half a billion dollars to build and then more to maintain a road, we will never be able to fund our marine highway. We Alaskans are good at coming up with pragmatic, can-do solutions. Improving the ferry system and creating a cost-effective, reliable transportation solution for all of Southeast Alaska is a way we can all benefit. And provide a thing we so badly need: Access.
• Beth Kerttula is the former state representative for Juneau and northern coastal Southeast. She grew up in Juneau and Palmer.