ADOT officials present transportation plan, face scrutiny from residents
Representatives from the Alaska Department of Transportation (ADOT&PF) gave a public presentation on their long-range transportation plan for Southeast Alaska last Wednesday. The presentation was followed by a public comment period, which centered largely on ferry service and the Kake Access project.
ADOT&PF's draft Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan (SATP) is a 20-year plan for the region which recommends projects for roadways, airports and ferry service. Regional trends, current priorities and projects, as well as maintenance costs and funding forecasts are all considered in the plan's formulation.
Andy Hughes, Southeast planning director for ADOT&PF, said that population projections were among the trends considered when making the plan.
While the Department of Labor is forecasting a population decrease in Southeast Alaska, Hughes said the railbelt region, including Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough, is projected to have "big increases over the next thirty years…which doesn't bode too well as far as our region's representation in the legislature."
Another trend considered in the plan's formulation was passenger traffic on the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) ferries.
"Vehicle traffic has been essentially flat for the past 20 years and passenger traffic has been on a long-term decline over the past 20 years in spite of the fact that since '97 we've added more vessels to the fleet," Hughes said.
Several Petersburg residents made comments alluding to the idea that ADOT&PF's data on passenger trends was more a reflection of inadequate ferry service than decreasing demand.
Petersburg resident Dave Kensinger said, "We had a transportation plan that worked for the communities in central Southeast Alaska for many decades and guess what, we had the same vessels then (30 years ago) as we do now, plus a few more. So everybody out here is kind of asking the question, 'Gosh, why can't I get anywhere on a ferry now?'"
Petersburg resident Ross Nannauck, III followed up Kensinger's comment saying "…now with less ferries, people have to find another way to travel so your ridership is down because they have to find another way to travel because they can't wait for the ferry."
Regardless of the reason for the long-term decrease in ridership, the result is that with fewer passengers per sailing, the ferries are underutilized relative to their capacity and thus inefficient, according to Hughes.
"The question is how much vessel capacity do you need to move the current traffic demand? Quite frankly you don't need as much capacity as we have today. The capacity that we're using today is somewhat inefficient because it's underutilized," Hughes said.
All of these changes are couched within a larger discussion about costs and funding. Hughes said that the operations and maintenance cost of the AMHS is approaching $140 million a year, while the costs to maintain the airport and highway system are just over $10 million a year.
"Just to put things in perspective, as far as the state regional transportation system, the cost of maintaining the ferry component represents 93 percent of maintaining the state's transportation system in Southeast," he added.
The ferry system's operation and maintenance is funded by the state, while capital projects are funded largely through federal dollars. State funds are expected to decrease as oil production declines, according to the draft SATP. At the federal level, capital transportation funds are being funneled into highway projects under the current bill Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, which governs such projects.
Despite the financial climate, Hughes echoed the draft SATP saying that the ferry system's routes of service will be maintained. The changes outlined in the plan include retiring or replacing three of the mainline vessels—the Malaspina, Taku and Matanuska— by 2024 as well as modifying terminal facilities in Haines and Skagway, constructing of a shuttle ferry from Haines to Skagway, and designing a Warm Springs Bay ferry terminal among other longer-term projects.
The draft plan also covers the Kake Access project which involves building a road on Kupreanof Island connecting the community of Kake to Kupreanof and Peterburg, via a Wrangell Narrows ferry that would be state-funded.
The road is one of the projects included in the draft SATP that is already underway.
Some $40 million was budgeted for the project under Gov. Parnell's Roads to Resources program in 2012.
Although there is a separate comment period for the Kake Access project which will be scheduled upon release of the EIS, many residents voiced questions and concerns about the road.
Several residents expressed concerns about ADOT&PF's ability to maintain the 50 mile, single-lane gravel road during winter. Other residents expressed concerns about general maintenance, citing concerns about the state of some roadways in town that are maintained by ADOT&PF such as South Nordic Drive. Road improvements on pavement, sidewalks, curbs and gutters had been planned to begin this fall on Nordic but will be delayed until spring 2015.
"One thing regarding the local road, we intended to have that taken care of a couple years ago....It took us a while to get the environmental document approved," Hughes said.
Discussion of the road to Kake brought questions about the proposed Kake Intertie project which would bring hydropower to the community to replace costly diesel and lower electric rates. Hughes said that the two projects are separate and the power project is not governed by ADOT&PF therefore he had no information on the project except, "the power line people are interested in roads to assist in maintenance." According to the draft plan, the road would also, "support construction of the inter-tie at a lower cost."
"I find it shocking that we can rattle off the amount of money we have for a road which is riddled with controversy, but we're unable to rattle off the amount of money that we've set aside to provide power to a starving community where there is no controversy around their need there," said Petersburg resident Nicole McMurren.
Hughes said that the full EIS for the Kake Access project is still pending but may be complete as soon as September. He encouraged community members to read the EIS for the access project when it becomes available and to make comments on it during the open comment period which will follow.
The draft SATP plan is available for viewing online at http://www.dot.alaska.gov/satp.
ADOT&PF officials recommend sending written comments on the plan. Comments are due by Sept. 30 and can be mailed to ADOT&PF Southeast Region 6860 Glacier Highway, Juneau, AK 99801, or e-mailed to email@example.com.