Today the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision that put the brakes on Juneau’s half-billion dollar dead-end road.
The road would have been built through one of the largest roadless areas in any national forest, come within a half mile of more than 90 bald eagle nests, and impacted the habitat of black bears, brown bears, marten, mountain goats, moose, wolves, and other animals.
“This is the right decision,” said Buck Lindekugel, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Grassroots Attorney. “The Federal Highway Administration and the Forest Service failed to look at the most obvious alternative, which is to improve access to Juneau using existing ferries. Why should we build an expensive and unnecessary road—which will still require a ferry connection—when improved ferry schedules, fares and other service could meet community needs?”
The project, being pushed by the state, would extend an existing dead-end road out of Juneau an additional 51 miles, along a steep, avalanche-prone section of the Lynn Canal fjord. The road would end at a new ferry terminal near the Katzehin River 90 miles from Juneau. Here travelers would transfer to a ferry to Haines or Skagway. The price tag on this road has continually increased, last estimated by the Federal Highway Administration in 2009 to cost taxpayers more than $500 million.
The Court’s ruling makes it clear that improved ferry service between Juneau and Haines and Skagway must be considered, and that the reasons presented for not doing so were “arbitrary”.
“Ferries are a safe and flexible means of connecting people throughout Southeast, and they are part of the fabric of our community,” said Lindsey Ketchel, SEACC Executive Director. “With the court decision behind us, it is time to put our transportation dollars into the common sense projects that matter most for our communities, such as the ferry system.”
A recent report by the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, Easy to Start, Impossible to Finish: Alaska Spends Millions on Roads and Bridges Without Financial Plans to Complete the Projects, outlines that in a time when Federal funds are declining, the State of Alaska is dedicating millions of dollars to projects, like the Juneau Access project, that it does not have the financial means to complete.
“This decision takes a questionable megaproject off the books and allows the governor to focus on more viable transportation projects, like Alaska class ferries and maintaining roads in the population centers of Alaska,” said Jan Wrentmore, a Skagway businesswoman and chair of the Skagway Marine Access Commission. “This is a positive step forward that will benefit communities throughout our region.”
“The decision reaffirms the State’s obligation to seriously consider for the first time the one alternative that could improve access and save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars: better ferry service in Lynn Canal with existing boats,” said Eric Jorgensen, an Earthjustice attorney in the case.
Earthjustice is representing the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Skagway Marine Access Commission, Lynn Canal Conservation, Alaska Public Interest Research Group, Juneau Group of the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.