Neighbors agree on energy, disagree on road

The ferry Malaspina awaits passengers at Juneau’s Auke Bay. The importance of the Alaska Marine Highway System to Lynn Canal communities was one area of agreement at the summit. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska.

Elected officials from Juneau, Haines, Skagway and Whitehorse met in Skagway on Friday for what was called the Northern Neighbors Summit.

The meeting kicked off with Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford and Skagway Mayor Stan Selmer discussing energy issues, including  prospective hydropower projects each community is working toward and the hope those projects could help provide shore power for cruise ship hook ups. But Sanford said it’s hard to build a project until the need is certain.

“You can’t pay and build something that’s so big you’re expecting to grow into in the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years anymore. You almost have to have enough sales upfront to be able to afford it and keep the price down,” Sanford said.

Haines Mayor Stephanie Scott added that  energy project stakeholders need to be identified to find funding sources rather than relying on just the state or federal government.

“I’m looking for business plans with these projects that name the stakeholders. If the state is a stakeholder, let them come to the table with some funds. And if they’re not, let them say so,” Scott said.

Mayor Selmer and Whitehorse Deputy Mayor Kirk Cameron also briefly explained the two cities are discussing options for an electrical intertie from Whitehorse to Juneau.  The Yukon Energy Corporation is meeting in Skagway this week for more discussions.

Talk of the Alaska Marine Highway came next with Skagway and Haines leading the conversation. Both communities were active this winter in protesting Gov. Sean Parnell’s move to scrap the Alaska Class Ferry project. The administration’s plan to create two, smaller shuttle type ferries for the Upper Lynn Canal drew criticism from around small communities in the region.  Juneau residents and officials were less cohesive in their protest of the plan, although Mayor Sanford said he didn’t agree with the idea of open-stern decks for the shuttle ferries. But he does believe ferry costs need to come under control.

“When you look at the efficiencies of our ferry systems, when supplying our needs, either cargo or passenger throughout our communities whether they be big or small, in my mind the ferry system has gotten out of hand with those costs,” Sanford said.

Talks of ferries segued into the Juneau Access Road project. Mayor Scott of Haines was vocal about her opinion of a road.

“The idea of a road link is still out there and that may happen too but what we’re going to have today, tomorrow and in the next 10 years are the ferries so we need to make sure that system is intact, efficient and viable,” Scott said.

But Sanford point blank said nothing was going to change his mind that a road, or combination of road and ferry systems, was the only option left for opening up more economic possibilities for the region.

“We all believe and we all know where we stand, I think we’ve all listened to all the different debates for all of our lives, everyone that’s here, and I think we’ve basically made up our minds already. I and I respect Mike’s position and Stephanie’s position, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to change my beliefs,” Sanford said.

Still, they attempted to find common ground. Scott asked if maybe all the communities could get behind a road from Juneau to the Kensington Gold Mine. Some Haines Borough Assembly members said they would be more inclined to support a west side road project, rather than one on the East Side of Lynn Canal. Selmer suggested Juneau keep exploring the road option from Taku Inlet to British Columbia.

The three-hour meeting addressed only half the items on the agenda. As host mayor, Selmer closed the meeting on a light note, pointing to a box of wooden toothpicks his staff had bought him.

“They bought me these toothpicks because I always said I would rather put these under my finger nails  than bite my tongue,” Selmer said. “I didn’t have to do that today. And I was really apprehensive about this meeting at times and it was weighing on me. But I think we’ve demonstrated Skagway, Haines, Juneau and Whitehorse are at least commonly geographically located and there’s nothing we can do about that.”  His comment evoked a laugh from the other mayors and assembly members.

The meeting in Skagway was supposed to include officials from Whitehorse, Yukon and the Yukon Energy Authority, but they were unable to attend because of weather. Whitehorse Deputy Mayor Kirk Cameron joined by phone, as did Rep. Beth Kerttula and Sen. Dennis Egan, who represent Skagway and Juneau. Rep. Cathy Munoz, of Juneau, attended in person.

The mayors tentatively plan another summit for November in Haines.