I’m not going to rehash the capital move saga because Ben Brown thoroughly covered it in an Empire column two weeks ago. But as he pointed out, the only reason Willow is not Alaska’s capital city is because Alaskans didn’t want to spend the money to move it there.
For voters to make that decision, they needed to know the cost of such a massive undertaking.
That’s why the March 2018 “Juneau Transportation Study” by the McDowell Group is seriously flawed. Its sponsors, the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly and First Things First Alaska Foundation, got the answers they wanted about building the Juneau Access Road without giving the $574 million price tag to the people they interviewed. And they never told them who would pay the bill.
Fortunately, the study doesn’t authorize taxpayer spending by state or local lawmakers. But it may have influenced the Legislature’s decision to include $21.3 million for the road in the state’s capital improvement budget.
That’s a small figure next to the total construction cost. Most of it would come from the federal government. But because it’s not an earmark, the money can be spent on higher priority highway projects anywhere in in the state.
The CBJ Assembly understands all that. But when they agreed to help fund the study last year, First Things First had touted it as “outreach” to learn what tradeoffs residents would consider regarding an “integrated transportation plan” involving the ferry system. You can’t do that without disclosing the cost and funding source for the road.
Furthermore, a second crossing to Douglas Island is irrelevant to that stated concern. So why was that the study’s first question?
The 79 percent who expressed support for the second crossing is up from the two-thirds who favored it in 2003. In this case, more important than leaving out the cost is that we know from a 2010 municipal ballot question that voters rejected committing $80 million of local money to building it.
Next people were asked if they’d support building a new ferry terminal at Sawmill Cove for day boats to and from Haines and Skagway. No one is seriously promoting that anymore.
Then, before interviewees were asked the final question about the Juneau Access Road, they were primed with the loaded observation that the “Legislature has cut ferry funding by about 30 percent over the past five years.”
Even hearing that, far fewer (54 percent) supported the Road than the second crossing. Would that be less if they’d been told the cost and that the state estimates the project will return only 28 cents for every dollar spent? And that doesn’t include the reconstruction needed to make the section between Sunshine Cove and Echo Cove and the Herbert and Eagle river bridges the same standard as the new highway.
Think about it. Support for the second crossing flipped from two-thirds in favor to a majority opposing it once people knew the cost and the fact it would be locally funded. And statewide, the almost 57 percent who voted to move the capital in 1974 fell to less than half when the decision was tied to spending an enormous amount of state funds.
The only difference with the Juneau Access Road is the American taxpayer is picking up the tab.
Imagine if the ferry from Long Island, New York to New London, Connecticut were being replaced with an 18-mile tunnel under Block Island Sound. And that residents on both sides of the system said they wanted it built but didn’t care about the cost because it was mostly federal highway money they’d be spending.
Alaskans would be outraged at such fiscal irresponsibility.
CBJ Assembly members should never have promoted a survey which blindly asked local residents to offer opinions about spending taxpayer funds. It’s the kind of trap that, 40 years ago, almost resulted in the Legislature and most of state government taking the ferry to a new home closer to Anchorage.
As Ben Brown warned, that can still happen. He didn’t argue we need to build the road to keep the capital here. And we don’t want to hand capital move proponents a gift by building a road that won’t bring people to legislative sessions because it’s too far and hazardous to drive in the winter.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. He contributes a weekly column to the Juneau Empire. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.