Juneau Access project begs question of ferries versus roads

Construction has extended Glacier Highway to Cascade Point. Here crews are shown working on widening parts of the existing road in June of 2013. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

Construction has extended Glacier Highway to Cascade Point. Here crews are shown widening parts of the existing road in June of 2013. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)


Why should the state of Alaska consider extending roads to take over the function served by ferries?

The question was recently put to Department of Transportation officials at a joint hearing of the legislature’s House and Senate Transportation committees.

From a DOT perspective, the answer is simple:  cost.

“One thing about a road is that first investment is retained over decades and decades and decades. It doesn’t wear out,” said Jeff Ottesen, division director of program development for DOT. “In the 50-year life of a ferry we replace it piece by piece.”

Capacity is the other part of the equation. Ottesen said roads give travelers greater opportunity and flexibility.

DOT forecasts indicate 1,484 vehicles a day could travel by road between Juneau, Haines and Skagway in the summer by the year 2020. Current ferry capacity is 154 vehicles a day in summer.

An old argument

A map of the favored proposed route to Katzehin. (Map courtesy Alaska DOT)

A map of the favored proposed route to Katzehin. (Map courtesy Alaska DOT)

A highway out of the capital city has been debated for decades. It’s slowly grown to Echo Cove and the latest proposal would extend it about 50 miles to the Katzehin River valley, east of Haines, where a ferry terminal would have to be built for the final leg to Haines and Skagway. Those ferries would operate in “a three directional mode,” Ottesen said.

“There’d be ferries from Katzehin over to Haines. Other ferries from Katzehin up to Skagway and then a smaller ferry up to Skagway and Haines directly,” he said.

In the summer, he said, the Katzehin ferry to Haines would run 10 times a day; six times to Skagway. Mainline ferries would no longer operate in Lynn Canal; they’d turn around at Auke Bay.

The latest estimate for the road to Katzehin is $500 million. Ottesen said the initial cost ultimately becomes savings.

“Roads will greatly increase the capacity of the corridor by almost a factor of ten.  And we believe that capacity will be filled.”

Testimony at the transportation hearing was by invitation. Though the committee received some letters, Juneau-Douglas High School teacher Clay Good was the only person testifying who was not affiliated with the state transportation department.

“As a student growing up in Juneau and now as a teacher, I’ve taken students on field trips throughout Southeast Alaska, and the ferries were and are the safest, most affordable transportation option,” Good said.

Good has read the reports that describe a road periodically closed in winter due to avalanches and rock slides. He sees no utility in what he called an “expensive and dangerous road.”

“Imagine 40 students on a winter ferry to Haines. I can see it, a bunch of kids having fun, running around. Now imagine those 40 students in a bus in the winter driving to a very remote ferry terminal to catch another ferry,” he said. “What would parents choose if they could?”

The next segment

Next year’s DOT proposed capital budget includes $35 million for the Juneau Access project. Just what the money would cover did not come up during the hearing.

At this point, there is no detailed plan, because the Juneau Access Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement isn’t done. DOT spokesman Jeremy Woodrow says a draft document could be released within a couple of months then public meetings would be held in Juneau, Skagway and Haines. The final SEIS must be approved before the next segment gets underway, and Woodrow hopes that would be as soon as next fall.

The SEIS has been delayed to include the costs of building and operating two day boats in Lynn Canal, called Alaska Class ferries. If a highway is ever built to Katzehin, the proposed day boats would be used on the route to Haines and  Skagway.