EDITORIAL

from the December 24, 2002 Skagway News

Here we go again...
New governor, new road ahead?

As expected, new Gov. Frank Murkowski has decided to reopen the Juneau Access Environmental Impact Statement process that was suspended by former Gov. Tony Knowles. Upper Lynn Canal residents should not be surprised by this news. If former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer had won, she too would have reopened the EIS process – such are the politics of trying to win votes in Juneau and debunking yet another attempt at a capital move statewide.
During the campaign, Murkowski said he would convince the communities of Haines and Skagway that their economies would improve with road access from Skagway to Juneau, the preferred alternative in the draft EIS. Skagway’s economy probably would improve with a highway link to Juneau, but it’s laughable to think that Haines’ economy would benefit from a road that passes on the other side of Lynn Canal from their town. Maybe that’s why no town meetings by the transition team were held in either upper Lynn Canal community.
It is our sincere hope that the voices of upper Lynn Canal will be heard by the new governor, and will have more weight in the completed EIS. Otherwise he will have a fight on his hands.
Nearly three years have passed since we applauded the decision by Knowles, who believed that the best way to improve access to Juneau was by implementing a system of fast, reliable ferries. We believe Knowles was correct in this assessment. Despite being vilified in Juneau, Knowles’ decision to suspend the EIS was heralded by most citizens in Haines and Skagway, who viewed the EIS as biased in favor of the Juneau-Skagway road link.
The EIS, as drafted, inadequately addressed these major areas of concern in upper Lynn Canal:
• Safety concerns about the high concentration of avalanche chutes between Juneau and Skagway, and the potential for motorists and highway crews to be stranded or killed.
• Realistic economic and social impacts on Haines and Skagway.
• Destruction of Skagway’s most popular recreation area – the Dewey Lakes Trail system – by the proposed highway route into Skagway.
• Cost – both for road construction (grossly underestimated) and winter maintenance (in this age of budget cuts and no new sources of revenues to keep current highways maintained properly).
Can these areas be adequately addressed to win over Haines and Skagway support for a road up the east side of Lynn Canal to Skagway? We doubt it. That is why we continue to support improved, fast, reliable ferry service in Lynn Canal.
In his statement last week, Murkowski said he is open to looking at all options and routes in the renewed Juneau Access EIS. This is encouraging, because there are other alternatives than a road from Juneau to Skagway. In addition to the fast ferries, other options have emerged as serious contenders.
With the Tulsequah Chief mine project receiving a go-ahead from British Columbia’s new government, the more traditional Taku Route through the Coastal Mountains to Juneau can now be included in the EIS, instead of being written off to Canadian politics.
And there has been serious discussion in Juneau about a compromise route up east Lynn Canal that would stop at Katzehin opposite Haines, connecting with a short shuttle ferry to both Haines and Skagway. Such a proposal would be perceived as fair in upper Lynn Canal, and could win over opponents in both towns who worry about the road’s impacts on their economies. But this shorter road would still have to be made safe from avalanches, and impacts on Berners Bay would remain a big concern for Juneau opponents.
During the campaign, Murkowski talked about how there hadn’t been a new road built in Alaska in two decades. He obviously was talking about the South Klondike Highway to Skagway, which will turn 25 years old in 2003. Skagway residents have surely benefited from their highway access. It has opened up many social and recreational opportunities and better connected us with our Yukon neighbors, but it hasn’t been the economic savior that we all thought it would be. Our tourism numbers are strong, but many of us who stay all winter struggle to make ends meet, even with a year-round highway.
Yet the perception in Juneau among road proponents is that we are spoiled. “Why can’t we have what you have?” was a common refrain seen in letters to the Juneau paper during the campaign. Juneau at times seemed as jealous of Skagway as it was during the gold rush, when we were the big city. But in the ensuing 100 years, Juneau has grown to become a beautiful capital city that we can all be proud of, and, with daily jet and ferry service, accessible enough for most Alaskans, given the latest vote striking down a capital move. A road to Juneau really isn’t necessary, unless you live in Juneau and feel a need to drive somewhere. Many do, and they may get their wish from the new administration.
But if “the stars are aligned” to build Juneau a road in the next decade, then our new governor should “get down to earth.” Include everyone in the process of improving Juneau Access for the benefit of all in our region. - WJB