Palin team sees low morale in Southeast

Road projects fuel strife in transportation sector, advisors say

Posted: Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Gov. Sarah Palin must deal with serious morale problems in the Southeast Region of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, according to a report from her transition team.

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The problems stem from former Gov. Frank Murkowski's attempts to rush two controversial road projects in the last days of his administration, the 12-member team said.

The investigators found "great employee strife and conflict over these projects impacting overall morale," in Southeast.

The team's results, a six-inch thick stack of documents, were issued Dec. 19 but made public on Friday in response to public-records requests. They touched on Murkowski's last days in office.

At the time, the Transportation Department was trying to begin work on a project linking Juneau to the nation's highway system with a road along Lynn Canal to a shuttle ferry connecting with Haines and Skagway at the Katzehin River.

Murkowski's administration rushed to get the project moving without adequate funding or permits. Eventually, it called for bids on a "pioneer road," segments of a gravel road without bridges that would have ended at the Kensington Mine, 45 air miles north of Juneau.

That project, enmeshed in legal and regulatory controversy, was canceled by Palin soon after she took office. More work needs to be done to restore the department's credibility, according to the report.

Murkowski, who's traveling around the world, could not be reached for comment.

Both the Juneau road and the Ketchikan Gravina Island Bridge project, known by its detractors as the "Bridge to Nowhere," drew criticism in the report.

"Statewide, these two projects are seen as a severe drain on resources that would otherwise be assigned to heavily used commercial and passenger routes," the report said.

The team said federal earmarks in Congressional appropriations trump all other priorities, including those in the State Transportation Improvement Plan, and the state suffers as a result.

The team consisted mostly of Anchorage residents with experience in roads and engineering. Its members interviewed engineering firms, construction contractors, trucking companies, transportation-related associations, department employees and the public.

The group reached "near consensus" about transportation issues and made a recommendation that the state's National Highway System roads be the focus of improvement efforts. Those are the roads in Alaska that carry most of the people and business traffic.

Transportation priorities established by federal earmarks, on the other hand, "create significant turmoil for DOT&PF and Alaska's major transportation system users," the report said.

The report recommended the creation of an Alaska Marine Highway System operating authority. An airport authority was also recommended.

The team said the idea of the authorities was a "strongly held position by most people who operate in the Alaska transportation world." The specific recommendation was to have a top transportation official research the statutory and financial implications of the authorities.

The transition team also recommended developing a state-funded transportation and maintenance program. They noted that Alaska has the lowest gas tax in the nation, implying that a tax increase should fund the program.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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