Road to Whittier opens

Posted: Thursday, June 08, 2000

BEAR VALLEY, Alaska (AP) -- A tunnel linking the Prince William Sound port of Whittier to the Alaska road system opened Wednesday despite protests, high winds and pelting rain.

About two dozen environmental activists were kept two miles from the tunnel entrance by Alaska State Troopers. Three of the protesters chained themselves together and sat in the road hoping to block vehicles, but troopers routed traffic around them.

''The state has not listened to the people on this,'' said Joanna Reichhold of Cordova as she huddled in the middle of the road in the rain. ''I plan on living in Prince William Sound the rest of my life. It is the most beautiful place on earth.''

The protesters carried signs and hung a banner from a footbridge that read ''Tunnel vision will sink the sound.''

The demonstrators sat in the road for about 40 minutes before leaving voluntarily.

Gov. Tony Knowles and about 300 visitors, including politicians, railroad officials, transportation department workers and Whittier residents, took shelter from the rain inside the tunnel.

''I don't find any fault with their desire to protect our resources,'' Knowles said of the protesters. ''The challenge is to accept the personal and professional obligations of stewardship.''

The governor cut a ribbon spanning the tunnel and then hopped in a 1954 Cadillac for the drive through to Whittier.

The tunnel project had been on the drawing board for more than 20 years. Construction began two years ago when environmental groups exhausted legal appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state's growing tourism industry pushed for the construction of the road so that tourists could have easier access to Prince William Sound with its glaciers, dense forests, soaring peaks and abundant wildlife. But access from Anchorage, 60 miles to the north, has been difficult. Since Whittier was established as a supply depot during World War II, it has been accessible only by limited train service.

Environmentalists opposed development of the road saying the influx of tourists and boaters could have disastrous impacts for Prince William Sound, which is still recovering from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill 11 years ago.

''We want to see some kind of limit on the number of people going into Prince William Sound and, if not a limit, at least a proposal that we can begin to talk about with the governor's office,'' said Soren Wuerth of the Alaska Action Center, one of the groups that organized the protest.

Opponents of the road had failed to get the state to delay the opening of the tunnel to give state and federal agencies time to draw up a comprehensive plan to manage the increased use of the sound.

Estimates of the number of visitors expected to travel the road to Whittier range from 430,000 to 1.2 million annually. That's up from about 100,000 who visited the town each year by train.

Whittier, which has a year-round population of 280, has been scrambling to build extra parking and provide public rest rooms for the coming crowds.

The $80 million road project involved widening an existing railroad tunnel to accommodate vehicle traffic, laying new train tracks in the road bed and constructing eight fireproof ''safe houses'' within the walls of the tunnel where motorists can take refuge in the event of an emergency.

At 2.5 miles in length, state officials say it is the longest highway tunnel in North America, but is only wide enough to accommodate one lane of traffic at a time. The Alaska Railroad, which hauls freight from Whittier, will have priority over vehicle traffic.

The tunnel is flanked on each end by two 48-foot high, A-frame portal buildings built to withstand avalanches. The portal buildings house the tunnel's ventilation system and fire trucks.

In a control center on the western end of the tunnel, computers will be used to regulate the train and vehicle traffic. As cars make their way through the tunnel they will be monitored by 49 closed-circuit television cameras and 19 radar detectors.

The cameras are intended to keep watch for emergencies and to ensure that the tunnel is cleared of vehicles before train traffic is allowed through. The system can handle up to 800 vehicles an hour.

Huge jet fans will purge the tunnel of carbon monoxide fumes and emergency phones are located every 300 feet.

DOT officials have decided to not collect tunnel tolls until April 1, 2001, because tour operators said they needed more advance notice of how much the trip will cost in order to price tour packages for the current tourist season.

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