August 20, 2005
Alaska's Road to Nowhere
By HEATHER LENDE
YOU have probably already heard about the pile of cash going to Alaska from the federal transportation bill. There's about a quarter of a billion dollars for a bridge to connect the airport on Gravina Island to Ketchikan (population 14,000). The bridge will rival the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridges in length and height.
Then there's $230 million or so for "Don Young's Way," a bridge between Anchorage and a swampy, undeveloped port, which is named for the man who got us the money, Alaska's lone congressman.
But it's the $15 million designated for a road between Juneau and Skagway that is dearest to me. Haines, the small town I live in, is close to Skagway - separated from it only by the waters of the upper Lynn Canal, which is not a canal at all, but the longest fjord in North America. The transportation money will go toward the first road ever to be built along the canal. Actually, the project will cost about $300 million to complete, but Gov. Frank Murkowski assures Alaskans that he'll get whatever he needs from the federal government.
The communities directly affected - Haines (population 2,400), Skagway (population 870) and Juneau (population 31,000) - have voiced opposition to the road for a host of good reasons: it is a waste of money; with at least two dozen avalanche chutes, it will be too dangerous to drive in winter, which is most of the year; we already have a fine ferry system that gets us just about everywhere we need to go in all kinds of weather; some places are too nice to be paved over.
Oh, and did I mention that the road won't fulfill its ostensible mission? The whole purpose of the new road was to connect Juneau to the Klondike Highway at Skagway, so that Alaskans who live in the interior would be able to drive to the state capital rather than rely on planes and ferries. But now the road is going to stop in the middle of the wilderness, 18 miles south of Skagway. Earlier this month, the Federal Highway Administration announced it would not finance a road that went through Skagway's Gold Rush-era park, a national landmark. The result? We're on course to get a $300 million road to nowhere.
The highway's designers promise to fix the problem by building a new ferry terminal at the end of the proposed road and purchasing new boats to haul people and cars from there to the ferry docks in Haines and Skagway, frequently in the summer, less so in the winter.
But this will make regional travel even harder. Right now, I can get on a ferry in Haines and take it all the way to Juneau. I can also stay on and go to Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell, Ketchikan, Prince Rupert, British Columbia or even Bellingham, Wash. With the new plan, Haines and Skagway residents (or my son's high-school basketball team) will take the ferry across Lynn Canal for about an hour, get off, and then have to drive about 75 miles to Juneau, which has no roads out of it.
The plan makes no sense. Instead, Alaska's politicians should do something they don't do very often: they should put the money for the road in the bank. The interest alone could go toward operating and maintaining the current Lynn Canal ferry system. A few rules would probably need to change, but I'm confident Alaska's politicians have enough clout when it comes to dealing with federal transportation money to bring this about.
John Muir warned young people not to travel up the Inside Passage of Alaska. After you see it, he pointed out, you'll either have to stay, or every place else will be a disappointment. Nothing much has changed since he died. The Lynn Canal still looks like Yosemite by the sea. If the road ever gets built, I'll call it Disappointment Highway.
Heather Lende, a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, is the author of "If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News From Small-Town Alaska."