Conservation and transportation groups filed suit today challenging a proposed road project to nowhere. The road would cut through a large roadless area north of Juneau on the east side of Lynn Canal and end in the wilderness roughly across the canal from Haines. The road project calls for the construction of a new ferry terminal at the end of the road. The entire project is expected to cost the state about $250 million and comes as the governor has instituted a state hiring freeze due to budgetary woes. The organizations filed suit in federal court in Juneau against the Federal Highway Administration and Forest Service.
Governor Frank Murkowski is pushing the road project in spite of the fact that the road was voted down by Juneau residents in 2000. Recent polls show that more Juneau residents than not still oppose the project. Designers of the road admit the road would be inherently dangerous and that some motorists will likely be killed by avalanches due to the sheer nature of the cliffs the road would pass.
Murkowski’s road building proposal also calls for the elimination of mainline ferry service north from Juneau. Supporters of the Marine Ferry system across Southeast Alaska view the proposal as Murkowski’s attempt to weaken the ferry system. Many Southeast Alaska towns are dependent on the Marine Ferry system and have passed resolutions in support of the ferries saying the ferry system needs to be strengthened rather than slowly dismantled by Governor Murkowski.
Objection to the road comes from around the state because money to build the road comes at the expense of other state-wide projects that were turned down by the governor’s office this year.
The groups filing suit today include The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Skagway Marine Access Commission, Lynn Canal Conservation, Alaska Public Interest Research Group, Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Council.
This is an example of the governor attempting to run roughshod over the law which says that the government must consider the effects that major projects will have and whether or not there are better alternatives,” said Earthjustice attorney Mike LeVine. “If a project is chosen to improve access to and from Juneau, it should be done right.”
The lawsuit focuses on the Federal Highway Administration and Forest Service’s failure to consider alternative methods of improving transportation between Juneau, Haines, and Skagway, and on their failure to fairly assess the effects the road would have on wildlife and other resources in Berners Bay and Lynn Canal. The organizations contend that the Highway Administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act by refusing to consider an alternative in which travel in Lynn Canal is improved by more effectively managing the existing ferry system. Each of the alternatives considered by the Highway Administration requires construction of new ferries or terminals. No consideration is given to better managing the current ferry system to provide more effective service in Lynn Canal.
The organizations also argue that the Forest Service violated the National Forest Management Act by authorizing road construction through designated Old-Growth Habitat Areas without fully considering alternatives. Road construction is prohibited in these reserves if a feasible and prudent alternative exists, and the Forest Service has refused to analyze alternatives.
The lawsuit also challenges the Highway Administration’s refusal to adequately consider the effects of road construction, operation, and maintenance on bald eagles and Steller sea lions. Bald eagles are protected by the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which prohibits their disturbance. The Highway Administration acknowledges that the road may disturb bald eagles by causing them to abandon nesting sites but it refused to address this potential violation or consider any methods to prevent or minimize this disturbance once the road is constructed. Similarly, Steller sea lions are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, which protects the animals and their habitat. Despite the fact that the road would pass directly through designated critical sea lion habitat at Gran Point, the Highway Administration refused to consult appropriately with the National Marine Fisheries Service about potential effects on Steller sea lions.
Finally, the lawsuit says this particular road extension and ferry shuttle system was chosen based on a faulty prediction of traffic demand. The demand projection assumes that without new ferries or roads, people will wait for more than eight hours at the ferry terminal each time they travel in Lynn Canal. Experts have told the highway administration this is an unreasonable approach that denies common sense.