DOT & PF commemorates 100 years of public service

Posted: Friday, January 21, 2005

It isn't every day that a person gets to celebrate a 100th anniversary, but that is just what we at the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) have in mind. On Thursday, Jan. 27, 2005, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Alaska Road Commission, our predecessor agency.

In 1903, Congress appointed a committee of four senators to investigate Alaska's "existing conditions, her resources and needs, with the purpose to ascertain and report what, if any, legislation is required for that district." This action was taken at the request of the growing mining industry in Alaska, which desired to have an all-American route to the Interior gold fields, in order to avoid border disputes with Canada.

The result of this congressional investigation was legislation, signed on Jan. 27, 1905, by President Theodore Roosevelt, which created a Board of Road Commissioners and an "Alaska Fund." The Alaska Fund was made up of revenues from liquor licenses, and occupational and trade licenses outside the incorporated areas of Alaska. While 25 percent of the revenue was dedicated to the establishment and maintenance of public schools, at least 70 percent was to be "devoted to the construction and maintenance of wagon roads, bridges and trails" in Alaska. The remainder, up to five percent, was devoted to the care and maintenance of mental health.

The original Alaska Road Commission (ARC) was housed under the Secretary of War, and its three members were officers in the U.S. Army. Based in Valdez, they were assigned the truly daunting task of assessing the transportation needs of a vast territory, and working toward the goal of constructing roads and connecting communities - at that time, mostly mining communities.

Constructing a usable road out of the trail from Valdez to Fairbanks became the ARC's first major project. It was later named the Richardson Highway after the first presiding officer of the Board of Road Commissioners, Major Wilds P. Richardson, 9th Infantry.

From its humble beginning in 1905, the ARC served the Alaska territory for more than 50 years, until 1956, when its employees and mission were transferred to the Bureau of Public Roads in the U.S. Department of Commerce.

During that period of time, the ARC built major roads throughout Alaska, including the Glenn Highway (1942), the Seward Highway (1920s), the Taylor Highway (1946-53), and the Steese and Elliott Highways. The ARC planned the Parks Highway and began its construction in 1956. Many of these routes started out as dogsled trails, and were gradually upgraded, widened, and eventually paved. The Alaska Highway, constructed by the military during the war, was turned over to the ARC for operation and maintenance in 1944.

After Alaskans achieved statehood in 1959, the majority of the road network was transferred to the state, where it was maintained and operated by the new Department of Highways. The successor agency to this series of road and highway agencies is, of course, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, so-named in 1977 when the Department of Highways was merged with the Department of Public Works.

Today, DOT&PF is a multi-faceted, full-service department of state government, maintaining more than 5,000 miles of highways, managing 268 airports and 73 harbors, operating a ferry system of ten vessels covering 3,500 nautical miles and 33 ports, and managing more than 700 buildings, from bunkhouses to courthouses.

This is the legacy of the ARC, and the men and women who dedicated their labor, innovation, and talents to it, who laid the foundation across Alaska for the transportation system we enjoy today.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of President Roosevelt's signing of the Act of Congress creating the Alaska Road Commission, the three regional headquarters of DOT&PF will hold open houses on Thursday, Jan. 27, from 2-4 p.m. The public is invited to stop by for a piece of cake and cup of coffee - especially former employees of the Alaska Road Commission, the Bureau of Public Roads, the Alaska Department of Highways, and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Regional headquarters address: Anchorage, 4111 Aviation Ave.; Fairbanks, 2301 Peger Rd.; Juneau, 6860 Glacier Highway.

• Mike Barton is the Commissioner for Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.

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