Legislature starts third special session today

Gov. Bill Walker killed Juneau Access.

The Alaska Legislature will bury it.

The 30th Legislature starts its third special session of the year today, and as legislators gather for a final vote on the state’s $1.4 billion capital construction budget, they’ll also be making a decision on the road north out of Juneau.

Included within the capital budget are instructions to reappropriate much of the $47 million remaining in the road fund. Of that money, $4.43 million will go to a school project in Kivalina, $21.3 million will be reserved for transportation projects in Lynn Canal, and the remainder will stay with Juneau Access.

While the road effort will not be entirely defunded, there is no clear path forward for its construction, and the remaining money is likely to be reappropriated in the near future.

On Tuesday, the Juneau Chamber of Commerce took to the radio, urging the Legislature on KINY-AM to leave the money in place.

Late Wednesday, the Juneau Chamber of Commerce asked its members to contact legislators and ask for the money to remain. “Alaska needs you to preserve the state funding for Juneau Access that is in place for the construction of the road to Alaska’s capital,” the Chamber wrote in an email. “Please act now to make this happen.”

Before Walker announced in December that the state would not build Juneau Access, state engineers had estimated its cost at $574 million. One-tenth of that price was to be paid by the state; the federal government would pay the rest.

In exchange for that money, Alaskans would get a road north from Juneau to the mouth of the Katzehein River on the east side of Lynn Canal. A small ferry terminal was to be built there, and the two new Alaska-class ferries (still under construction in Ketchikan) were to run shuttle routes between Haines and Skagway.

Instead of a five-hour ferry ride from Juneau to Haines or Skagway, residents would have been able to reach that city with an hour of driving and a 30-minute ferry ride. Skagway would have involved a slightly longer ferry ride.

Previous editions of the Alaska Legislature had allocated most (but not all) of the funding for construction. Slightly more than $10 million was needed for the project to be fully funded.

Rather than press ahead, Walker decided to end the effort and redistribute the money.

“I am a builder by background and understand the importance of construction projects, but I am very concerned with our current multi-billion dollar fiscal crisis and must prioritize the need for fiscal resolution,” he said at the time.

After canceling the project, Walker suggested reappropriating all of the Juneau Access money. The Alaska Senate suggested reappropriating none of it.

[House and Senate have differing visions for $47 million account]

The Alaska House, in a compromise, suggested reappropriating half of it, and when lawmakers vote today, that compromise will be in front of them.

The Juneau Access decision is only part of a capital budget that is a month overdue. The budget calls for $1.42 billion in construction spending, with $1.19 billion of that figure from the federal government. The state’s share of the budget will come primarily from the Statutory Budget Reserve, which still contains $288 million.

Earlier this year, the Alaska Senate had proposed using the entire statutory reserve to pay a backlog of oil subsidy claims. The House rejected that proposal.

The House, meanwhile, proposed increasing Permanent Fund Dividend payments, something the Senate rejected.

As part of the compromise today, neither side will get what it wanted.

The House and Senate are expected to convene at 11 a.m. A conference committee meeting to approve the bill has been scheduled for 1 p.m., and the House and Senate will each vote on the budget in the afternoon. When that action is complete, lawmakers are expected to adjourn the session.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.