A federal appeals court in San Francisco sent the state of Alaska back to looking at all its options after its May 4 ruling shut down a proposed 51-mile, $500-million highway from Juneau to a new ferry landing in Katzehin.

Photo courtesy Scott Logan/Alaska Transportation Priorities Project
Proposed road would be along a route that is prone to avalanches.

The decision by the U.S. Ninth Circuit court upholds a 2009 lower court opinion that the project’s final environmental impact statement was not valid because it did not include an alternative that would improve transportation with existing assets, namely upgraded ferry service.

The planned project — a major increase from the original 2006 estimate of $100 million — would have built the East Lynn Canal Highway from the end of Glacier Highway in Juneau around Berners Bay to the new ferry terminal. New ferry service would then have shuttled vehicles to Haines and Skagway.

Five environmental groups filed suit in 2006 to stop the project, claiming that a construction project through one of the largest roadless areas in a U.S. national forest would pose dangers to wildlife and the environment.

The proposed road would have run along a steep, avalanche-prone section of the Lynn Canal fjord, serving between 380 and 670 vehicles per day.

Brenda Hewitt, a spokesperson for the Alaska Dept. of Transportation, told ENR that the agency is disappointed by the ruling and will be forced to review all its options. Looking at upgraded ferry service is likely going to be a focus, she says. “We could just drop it too,” she notes. “All our options are available.”

“This is the right decision,” says Buck Lindekugel attorney for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and lead plaintiff, in a May 5 statement.

“The Federal Highway Administration and the Forest Service failed to look at the most obvious alternative, which is to improve access to Juneau using existing ferries,” he said. “Why should we build an expensive and unnecessary road—which will still require a ferry connection—when improved ferry schedules, fares and other service could meet community needs?”

Hewitt says her office will work with FHWA and Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R) to determine its next steps. She expects a decision sometime in June.