remier Dennis Fentie has thrown the Yukon’s support behind a controversial proposal to build a road linking Juneau and Skagway.
“Yukon clearly sees the benefits in moving ahead with this particular initiative,” Fentie told the Alaska State Finance Committee Friday as it debated the merits of bill SB231, which would commit $45 million US from state coffers to the four-year highway project along the fjords of the Lynn Canal.
“We understand clearly what that would mean to us, in terms of travellers coming in to the Yukon, but I think we understand clearly what it means to the state of Alaska,” Fentie told the Alaskan committee in a telephone call from Dawson City.
He placed the call immediately after announcing a $4.43-million Dawson City bailout package to aid the town’s beleaguered finances.
During that media conference with Yukon reporters, Fentie made no mention of his upcoming Alaskan testimony.
“As we do on many instances and many occasions and with respects to many issues, Alaska and Yukon always find reciprocal arrangements that result in support coming both ways, from our territory to Alaska and Alaska to us,” said Fentie during his testimony.
“The Yukon, as it supports the state of Alaska in the efforts for the Alaska Highway pipeline, as we support Alaska’s efforts for the railway feasibility study and moving ahead with that project, we will continue to support Alaska in its efforts of building a road from Juneau, linking us all to what is a marvelous capital city in the state of Alaska.”
Fentie’s announcement angered conservation and small-business advocates on both sides of the border.
They argue the 80-kilometre road through scenic coastal rainforest would be a dangerous and costly boondoggle.
The terrain is prone to avalanches and is habitat for many wildlife species, including whales, sea lions, bald eagles and grizzly bears that are major seasonal draws for tourists on cruise ships.
“We want to preserve the marine highway system, and this road is going to have a huge impact,” said Jan Wrentmore, a Skagway merchant and spokeswoman for the Skagway Marine Access Committee.
The US department of Transportation estimates the road will cost $300 million, to be pulled from Shakwak funding for the Alaska Highway and the Alaska Marine Highway System, said Wrentmore.
“I could understand if they’re getting their hard link to the highway that they want, but they are still going to have to operate three shuttle ferries at the north end of Lynn Canal.”
When asked about his endorsement of the project, Fentie tried to remain neutral.
“We don’t endorse this, we are saying it has a benefit for Yukon,” he said Tuesday.
“We recognize that (the road) would have a direct economic benefit for Yukon by increasing traffic flow from Alaska into the Yukon territory, but we certainly aren’t going to take a position or dictate to the Alaskans or the Americans a decision.
“We support Alaska in its endeavours, and, if it chooses to proceed with a project like this, we are certainly not going to oppose them.
“We respect jurisdictions.”
However, the road proposal is a “major challenge, considering the adverse conditions for road building,” he said.
“You’re talking mountain rock, not gravel eskers.
“In the Yukon, we build roads like moving pudding. We’ve got gravel eskers.”
Fentie did not include his doubts about the project in his comments to the Alaskan committee.
Furthermore, he insisted that Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski, a key proponent of the project, did not personally ask him to testify before the committee.
The “the institution itself” asked him for his comments, he said.
Most citizens in Skagway and Haines are opposed to the development, while Juneau locals are evenly split on the issue, said Wrentmore.
It’s not as though Fentie’s comments carry a lot of weight in the road debate, she said.
“I heard several comments in the halls of the legislature that it was inappropriate for someone from another country to be interfering in our public testimony process.
“Most people just rolled their eyes.
“(Fentie) is buddies with Frank Murkowksi. That’s pretty common knowledge.
“And that is typical of the heavy-handed way that (Murkowski) deals with issues. He does not have respect for the public process that we’ve established here over so many years.”