It was in the early 1990s that the latest incarnation of “The Road” took shape. The idea was to create easier access to Juneau, Alaska’s capitol, which remains accessible only by air or sea. While Juneau is not the only capitol city not connected by road, sharing that designation with Honolulu and Victoria, BC, it is the only one located on the mainland.
So why is there no road to Juneau? A road going due east wouldn’t work out so well with an icefield the size of Rhode Island separating Juneau from Atlin, British Columbia. Similarly, the route up the Taku River is blocked by ever-shifting glaciers. That left a road north along the Lynn Canal as one of the few potential options.
It was in the early 1990s that the Alaska Department of Transportation took the first steps towards the road by kicking-off a public environmental review process for a road along the east side of Lynn Canal, North America’s steepest, deepest fjord.
The road was proposed as a way to reduce costs to the state by replacing the state-run Alaska Marine Highway System with a “hard link” between Juneau and Skagway. It would slice through Berners Bay, the heart of the largest roadless area in the Tongass National Forest; an area critical for wildlife and a geologic mine field. With four rivers converging at the head of the Bay, the area explodes with wildlife each spring as the nutritious schools of eulachon (often called “hooligan”) offer themselves to hundreds of seals, sea lions, and whales. Along the river delta it is easy to find bear, moose, and wolves. Further up the Lynn Canal mountain goats cling to the steep faces of 6,000 foot peaks that plunge vertically into a fjord that is 2,000 feet deep. The stunning geology that makes it such a unique and wonderful place would also have made it one of the most dangerous roads in the world.
2000 – The Road’s First Death
SEACC organized the grassroots opposition to the first draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) issued for public comment in 1997, citing the environmental impacts the road would have on the land and wildlife and the dangers it would pose to travelers. In 2000 Marc Wheeler and SEACC’s allies rallied to win a local advisory vote: Juneauites chose an improved ferry system over the dangerous and environmentally damaging road. Shortly afterward, then Governor Knowles announced he was tabling the road project and would instead construct two new fast vehicle ferries to connect Juneau with Skagway and Haines.
2003 – Resurrecting a Bad Idea
When Governor Frank Murkowski took office in 2003, he announced his plan to restart the road planning process. Once again SEACC’s staff attorney Buck Lindekugel lead the charge by coordinating a cutting analysis of the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), while Emily Ferry organized robust opposition to the project in Skagway, Haines, and Juneau. Emily also highlighted the connection between the road and the now infamous ‘bridges to nowhere’.
The bridges garnered national attention in 2005 when a federal transportation bill ushered through congress by Transportation Committee Chair Don Young, granted huge earmarks for the Knik Arm Bridge in Anchorage, and the Gravina Island Bridge in Ketchikan. The Juneau Road and many other Alaskan projects received smaller amounts. When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana it exposed giant flaws in the system; instead of investing in existing infrastructure like life-saving levies for New Orleans, Congress had poured hundreds of millions of tax dollars into Bridges to Nowhere in Alaska. The weight of the criticism, combined with the astounding lack of need eventually sunk these projects.
Meanwhile, the City of Skagway and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park both asserted that the northern portion of the proposed route was both a recreation area and historic site that would be unnecessarily compromised by the road when there was a prudent and feasible alternative in the form of the Alaska Marine Highway. DOT then acknowledged that they could not legally construct the road all the way to Skagway.
As a result, in August of 2005, DOT announced it had changed its preferred alternative for the project, the East Lynn Canal Highway. The highway would run 50-miles north of Juneau, through Berners Bay and up the Lynn Canal, stopping at the Katzehin River Delta, 14 miles short of Skagway. From there, travelers would take a ferry across the fjord to either Haines or Skagway.
Before leaving office, then Governor Murkowski rushed a contract for a pioneer road into Berners Bay and purchased $8.2 Million of steel piles for the bridges required for the road. Governor Sarah Palin, who had swept into office on a reformist platform, canceled the contract. The piles were left in Seattle where the State of Alaska has been paying to store them for over a decade.
In 2006, Earthjustice challenged the State’s Environmental Impact Statement on behalf of SEACC, Lynn Canal Conservation, the Skagway Marine Access Commission, the Alaska Public Interest Research Group, NRDC, and the Sierra Club. In February 2009, the U.S. District Court for Alaska agreed with our argument that the State violated NEPA by not considering an alternative that used assets it already possessed, namely the Alaska Marine Highway System. Reconfiguring the schedule and making the reservation systems easier to use for the ferries were inexpensive fixes that would ameliorate many of the perceived problems. Despite appeals by the state in favor of the road, in May of 2011, the appeals court upheld the district court’s decision and DOT went back to the drawing board again to revise its environmental analysis.
2014 – Killing the Zombie Road
In 2014 DOT came out with a revised Supplemental Draft EIS for public review. At hearings in Juneau in the summer of 2014, 75% of those who testified were opposed to the project; in Haines and Skagway the opposition was even higher. Experts identified flaws with DOT’s studies which had over-estimated traffic forecasts, and under-estimated costs and risks.
One of the initial rationales for pursuing the project was to reduce costs to the state, but the EIS itself actually revealed that the road would cost the State, on average, $5 million more each year to maintain than the existing ferry system. This is in part because the road would cross 36 avalanche chutes, over one hundred “geological hazards” like rock falls which would require constant upkeep. It would also require the building and maintenance of five tunnels and the second, third, and fourth longest bridges in the state.
Later that year when Walker was elected governor, the State’s finances had begun to plummet due to the falling price of oil. It became apparent that Alaska would need to prioritize. Walker put a half-dozen mega-projects on hold pending further analysis. Tensions were high with many passionate people on both sides of the debate. When his Commissioner of Transportation submitted an advocacy piece in favor of the road, the Governor replaced him.
It took another two years of studies, hearings, meetings, letters, editorials, petitions, and phone calls before the Governor announced on December 15, 2016 that that State would select the no build alternative and redirect about $40 million in state funds that had been set aside for the project towards existing infrastructure, including the Marine Highway System.
Over the past 20 -years, SEACC has been there every step of the way, from finding experts to poke holes in flawed studies, to organizing rallies on the State Capital steps. We have worked at every level of government; from the local planning commission to the U.S. Congress, getting the right information to the right people at the right time.
And working as a team with our members, allies, and supporter vigilance, persistence, creativity, and stalwart grassroot activists helped us prevail.
The Governor’s recent decision is a huge step toward killing this project, but like a zombie, we know that the concept will never truly die. While we will continue to keep a watchful eye, we also look forward to moving past this debate and investing in real solutions for the region.