My Turn: Rail extension bill offers economic benefits

Posted: Friday, February 08, 2002

I was both dismayed and encouraged to read Sen. Kim Elton's comments on my railroad extension legislation published in the Feb. 1 issue of his on-line constituent newsletter "Off the Record."

The specific purpose of the legislation in question, HB 241, is to authorize the Alaska Railroad to go to Whitehorse, Yukon. No money is appropriated, but this bill opens the way for the Alaska Railroad to use funds it might obtain in the future - federal money, for example, or perhaps bonds - to survey and obtain a rail and utility corridor, and to obtain any necessary state land fee simple title. It would be up to the railroad to obtain rights of way across private or federal land.

The overall purpose of this bill is to take a first step toward completing a rail connection between Alaska and the rest of North America. The benefits would be enormous - there's a reason why Alaska's economic heartland is called "The Railbelt."

A lot is happening: The Canadian government is considering funding a bilateral commission to complete a feasibility study of the rail connection; $6 million was appropriated for this commission in legislation passed by Sen. Frank Murkowski, who is a very strong supporter of the project. There is strong support in the Interior, the University of Alaska, the Yukon as well as in western Canada. A few weeks ago I spoke about the rail connection on a news-talk radio station in North Dakota.

I am encouraged by Sen. Elton's comments because discussion is always good. I was dismayed, however, because it seems many reasons for opposing this legislation miss the overall point. Under the header "Is the gas pipeline being railroaded?" Sen. Elton pulls this quote from the musical South Pacific: "You gotta have a dream. If you don't have a dream, then how you gonna make a dream come true?" It's an excellent sentiment.

One concern raised is the potential for the rail corridor to somehow interfere with construction of a natural gas pipeline and other economic development. This concern, I believe, is invalid.

For the last two years I have met with gas pipeline folks, and there is a very strong interest in the rail connection. Having a railroad in place to move pipe and equipment would very likely improve the economics of pipeline construction. And there are economies of scale in constructing a railroad and gas pipeline at the same time.

Just imagine the Alaska Highway bearing the traffic load of pipeline construction and then imagine the potential impact on tourism during the time construction is ongoing. No one from the gas or pipeline industry has expressed any objection to this legislation.

Another objection is to putting a rail corridor in statute. But a rail corridor from Eielson to the Canadian border already exists in statute; in fact, legislation I passed in 1999 made certain it wasn't abandoned. But there's a bigger picture: When economic development occurs, stakeholders can - and most often do - work together for a common good. It could very well be that some negotiations involving the Alaska Railroad will have to take place at some future date. That doesn't concern me - but allowing another interest to block a railroad connection forever certainly does.

Alaska faces a nearly $1 billion budget deficit. In the long run, only economic development will allow us to afford the services we require. We must get away from the boom-and-bust economy that occurs when there is dependency on a single industry for revenue. A railroad connection will allow us to do new things in agriculture, trade, tourism, resource development and value-added industry. At the same time, railroads are environmentally friendly because they leave a small footprint on the land while allowing for controlled access.

I believe Southeast will benefit as well, as new opportunities open up in Skagway, for example. While the White Pass Railroad has made no commitments, there is logic in the argument that it would extend its tracks to meet any rail connection, and thus increase trade through the Lynn Canal.

HB 241 has gone through a long process of review. It's passed the House and the Senate Transportation Committee. I am confident it will reach the governor's desk this session, and become law.

James, of North Pole, is House majority leader.

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