In Alaska, 68 miles of contentious asphalt

A controversial $300 million road would connect Juneau to the outside world by car.

In a few weeks, Steve Vick, a swimming coach from Haines, Alaska, will dive into a fjord near his home and begin a 92-mile swim to Juneau to protest a proposed highway.

Mr. Vick knows he'll be breaststroking upstream against more than the cold undercurrent of the Lynn Canal, part of Alaska's spectacular Inside Passage. A greater tide could soon surge into his state in a form of federal highway money many Alaskans don't want.

Funding for several controversial highway projects in the Last Frontier state is contained in the massive Transportation Equity Act that sets the course of federal spending on highways for the next six years. A joint bill could soon clear the House and Senate.

The proposed Juneau access road is, like many things Alaskan, both ambitious and contentious. For the first time in Juneau's history, the 68-mile route would provide an auto connection to the "outside" world. Juneau, population 30,000, is the only state capital in the US completely isolated by dint of geography and can only be reached via airplane or ferry. Yet many residents here feel the proposal is a waste of money and a threat to natural wonders and a fiercely protected way of life.

The division over the Juneau road proposal has churned for half a century. Polls and recent referendums suggest that Juneauans remain split evenly.

"The surprising part is not that the community is divided but that opinions aren't separated along partisan lines or conservative vs. nonconservative," notes Rueben Yost with the Alaska Transportation Department. "Some people just like the romance of Alaska the way it was, and others see the road as being important to the future."

Gov. Frank Murkowski, who, like proponent Mr. Yost, says the $300 million coastal highway to Skagway would create unprecedented access, bolster the economy, allow for better healthcare, and enable lawmakers to drive to the capitol chambers in winter.

But to critics like Vick, the Juneau Road is emblematic of a larger issue: special interest federal spending allegedly run amok.

The only point of agreement lies with the engineering challenges the road poses. It would require bulldozing and dynamiting through a beloved wildlife-rich wilderness northwest of Juneau called Berners Bay in the Tongass National Forest. Then it would slice across oceanside cliff faces that hold at least 60 dangerous avalanche chutes, and pass above Gran Point, where hundreds of endangered Steller sea lions gather.

As bold an idea as the Juneau Road is, it pales in comparison to two other controversial Alaska highway projects costing nearly half a billion dollars combined.

A proposed two-mile-long Knik Arm Bridge would connect Anchorage to the outpost of Pork Mackenzie - current population one but eyed as a gateway to future suburbs.

Another proposed bridge, as long as the Golden Gate and higher than the Brooklyn Bridge, would connect Ketchikan with Gravina Island, home to 50 people, where the airport is located. A trip to the airport now requires a 10-minute ferry ride.

Because of the clout of Alaska's congressional delegation, namely Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and US Sen. Ted Stevens, little national debate has occurred over the necessity for the rural transportation projects in Alaska compared to other highway needs in far more populous regions of the Lower 48.

Alaska, population 630,000 gets $6 in subsidies for every $1 it pays to the federal treasury - making it the most heavily subsidized state in the country.

Governor Murkowski explains the apparent imbalance by saying that Alaska only gained statehood in 1959 and has a lot of infrastructure catching up to do - even though Alaska is having difficulty maintaining existing roads. Some residents are quick to agree.

"Communities are meant to grow," says Kathy Hosford, a lifelong Alaskan who rents rustic tourist cabins in Skagway, the Juneau road's proposed terminus. "If you can't grow, you can't survive."

Other Alaskans, however, would just rather not be bothered with the dramatic changes such a road could bring. Recently, the US Environmental Protection Agency gave thumbs down to the Juneau Road blueprint, joining the majority of citizens in the towns of Skagway and Haines - communities poised to reap the biggest benefits.

"We don't want the road because we don't need it," says Jan Wrentmore, proprietor of the famous Red Onion Saloon in Skagway, which thrives on the commerce from thousands of cruise ship passengers.

"We [locals] can get around fine using a high speed ferry."

Mr. Yost says it's expensive for Alaskans and visitors to ride the ferry, costing $53 for a one-way ticket from Skagway to Juneau - more if they bring their car. A flight by bush plane between the towns costs $150 roundtrip, plus hotel expenses.

With unreliable ferry service in winter, people leave Skagway in droves and youth sports teams are gone for a week at a time to compete in other towns. Making a trip by highway into Juneau would be reduced to the price of a quarter tank of gas.

But Emily Ferry, a conservationist for the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, says the expense of road construction is being deliberately underestimated to win support, and many believe the actual cost will reach $1 billion because of the challenging terrain. The day the highway opens, if it ever does, it will be known as the most perilous in the world because of avalanches, she says. One state official said it will require an ongoing arsenal of bomb shells being detonated for seven months of the year to prevent snow slides.

Whether building the highway and maintaining it amid hostile weather conditions ultimately proves to be more effective and cheaper than subsidizing ferry service is arguable. But environmentalists and hard-line fiscal conservatives alike are uniting against Congressmen Young in what they see as runaway pork-barrel spending.

Pat Williams of Montana, a former nine-term Congressman who is a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, Mont., goes as far as to call the money designated for Alaska "shameful."

"Where is the scrutiny?" Mr. Williams asks. "There isn't any because with his seniority, Don Young is untouchable.... "

Up in Haines, Steve Vick, hopes to help "wake the country up" when he splashes into the frigid ocean water Aug. 1 to bring attention to his cause. "Doing it can't hurt," he says. "The governor and our congressional delegation aren't listening. They're trying to strongarm us by giving us a highway we can do better without."

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