- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - A project to improve access to Alaska’s capital has come to a stop.

Citing the state’s multi-billion dollar fiscal crisis, Gov. Bill Walker announced Thursday he has decided not to build a 50-mile road extension north from Juneau.

Juneau is accessible only by water or air. The Juneau Access Project would have lowered costs and sharply reduced time spent on ferries for drivers trying to reach Skagway or Haines and a connection to the North American road system.

Walker in a prepared statement acknowledged many would be disappointed with the decision.

“I am a builder by background and understand the importance of construction projects, but I am very concerned with our current multi-billion dollar fiscal crisis and must prioritize the need for fiscal resolution,” Walker said.

Environmental groups oppose the extension and say a road would disrupt areas that are environmentally sensitive. Emily Ferry, deputy director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, called Walker’s action a “smart decision for the state.”

“This is not the right project to invest in when you’re cutting state troopers and state highway maintenance,” she said.

The road would have dissected remote lands with important Alaska Native culture and environmental values, including Berners Bay, she said.

“It’s Juneau’s backyard wilderness and a tremendous area for fish, crab, deer, moose, you name it,” she said.

Estimates in 2014 put the price tag at $574 million, with most of the money supplied by the federal government.

Craig Dahl, executive director of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, called the decision extremely disappointing. His group has testified for years in favor of what it regards as a resource development project.

Besides providing jobs, a road extension would have improved access to the Kensington Mine, opened up other areas for mining, and with enhanced ferries elsewhere, improved access throughout southeast Alaska.

State Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said he has supported the road since his father, Bill Egan, was governor after statehood. Alaska had money in hand for a road on the west side of Lynn Canal in 1972 but it was vetoed by Gov. Jay Hammond, he said.

He also called Walker’s decision disappointing.

“I can understand the governor’s reasoning but I don’t like it,” he said.

He has always considered the project a way into Juneau, not a way for residents to leave. Many people, he said, don’t understand that Juneau is a major trading area for almost 70,000 people in the region.

“The capital needs access, and we can do it,” Egan said. “We’re not building a bridge to Honolulu.”

Walker in his announcement said the state is working closely with federal highway officials. He does not anticipate having to repay any federal funds spent because studies done to date will be available in the future.

Egan said Walker’s decision is not the end of the decades-long dream of better access to Juneau.

“It’s not the end at all,” Egan said. “It’s just a setback.”

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