A century-old dream of connecting Alaska with the rest of North America by railroad took a significant step forward here in Juneau on Thursday, Jan. 15.
No track was laid, but an all-day conference proved successful as over 120 interested participants gathered at the Baranof Hotel to hear from political leaders and technical folks from across Alaska and western Canada.
Two themes came across loud and clear. One, the railroad connection is doable and beneficial to citizens and the economies of both sides of the border. Two, the support for the connection is particularly strong in western Canada.
Speakers included Gov. Frank Murkowski; Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie; two members of the B.C. legislature, including Dennis MacKay of the Northern Caucus; and Minister Greg Halsey-Brandt.
In addition to a number of B.C. mayors, Ed Schultz, grand chief of Yukon First Nations, and Glenn Scammel, chief counsel of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Rail, addressed the conference.
The enthusiasm was impressive.
Most informative was the speech by Larry Bagnell, Yukon's member of Parliament in Ottawa. In the Yukon MP's opening remarks, he explained he was the "Don Young of the Yukon." It was a good comparison because, just as our congressman chairs the U.S. House Transportation Committee, the Yukon's MP has been elevated to cabinet status thanks to a new administration in Ottawa.
The next step is for Canada's federal government to seat its members of a bilateral commission approved by Gov. Murkowski when he was U.S. senator.
The purpose of the commission is to complete a feasibility study of the rail connection. The Yukon MP told the conference the time had never been better for this project to advance.
One presenter made the point that historically the cost of building a natural gas pipeline is 20 percent lower where a railroad is in place to bring in pipe and equipment.
I think that's certainly an interesting figure to consider in terms of constructing the Alaska Highway-route gas pipeline.
We will build this pipeline because North Slope gas is badly needed in Lower 48 market. The question is will we have the vision to make the cost of building that pipeline 20 percent lower?
Sen. John J. Cowdery