An economic argument can be made for a road connecting Juneau to the continental highway system, but there’s a big challenge.
It’s the estimated $552 million price tag. That covers $523 million for the road to the Katzehin River delta, a new $20 million Katzehin ferry terminal and $9 million for a Skagway terminal modifications. The study doesn’t address the costs of building out the road from Katzehin to Skagway or cost of shuttle ferries.
A McDowell Group study released in December 2015 makes the case for the Juneau road, pointing out it would lead to reduced state and public transportation costs in the Lynn Canal area. It also would expand travel opportunities and reduce travel time between the area’s communities, and it would increase the ways in which goods could be transported in and out of Juneau.
The state Department of Transportation is working on the final supplemental environmental impact statement this year.
The project would include widening Glacier Highway from Echo Cove to Cascade Point and building 48 miles of new road from Cascade Point to the Katzehin. Shuttle ferries would be placed to take passengers and motor vehicles to Skagway and Haines until the road could be built beyond Katzehin.
In the argument for the project, here are a few of the economic high points:
— With a completed Juneau-to-continental-road system, traffic in, out and around Lynn Canal is predicted to increase dramatically to an average of 1,240 motor vehicles daily. That compares to 90 using existing transport possibilities now. Of course, the number factors in summertime traffic as high as 4,700 vehicles daily.
— With about a million people expected to travel the road annually, the cost for individuals and families would decline compared to existing possibilities. For example, a family of four traveling in the area would save about 93 percent in direct transportation costs, according to the study.
— When travel costs decline for the private sector, they do as well for business. Mining, seafood and visitor industries prominent in the region would see increased transportation and shipping opportunities at likely lower costs. Lower costs would encourage road traffic. Juneau predicts as many as 165,000 new visitors if road access is available, according to the study.
— Building projects always create jobs, and, Southeast, which has been experiencing job losses, could use a project to help reverse that trend. The study shows an average 378 jobs, with a payroll of $39 million annually, could be realized during the six-year project.
— Roads drive sales and property tax, and Juneau anticipates an increase in both with the road project. But other communities on the system would benefit as well. Juneau’s sales tax increase is projected at $630,000, with a significant amount in taxes collected on gasoline sales. Plus, property tax revenue would increase with industry and the public’s road access to property. Juneau figures on an additional $500,000 in property tax.
Because of the state’s $4 billion deficit and resulting economic decline, Juneau — as the state capital — needs to replace what it is losing in terms of an economy. It isn’t alone, what happens in Juneau will affect Haines, Skagway and all of this region to some extent. The road project would go a long way in helping multiple communities.
But, essentially, it’s a northern Southeast regional road.
With or without the road, transportation is changing in the region. Declining state revenue has resulted in cutbacks for the Alaska Marine Highway System. It is sailing fewer ships less often, which reduces the opportunity for commercial and private trips and shipments. This is contrary to what a thriving economy requires.
But building an economy doesn’t come cheaply. The state has designated $200 million toward Juneau’s road project, three-quarters of which is from the federal government. Still, that’s well short of the more than $500 million needed.
It all comes down to the economy and what it’s worth. If the existing economy satisfies Southeast Alaskans, then maybe the road isn’t necessary. However, if something better is expected, and many Southeast Alaskans will agree it is, then this project takes on a higher priority.
It becomes a road to the future.
—The Ketchikan Daily News, June 4, 2016