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Bill to inject $180 million into rural roads

Some concerned federal control of road priorities may reduce public supervision

Posted: Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The Denali Commission would get $30 million a year for six years to build roads connecting Alaska villages under an amendment approved by the U.S. Senate, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, announced Monday.

The federal and state entity charged with providing economic infrastructure to rural Alaska would get the $180 million boost under a transportation bill amendment approved last week. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, sponsored the amendment, which awaits action by the House.

The move gives the Denali Commission authority to set road priorities usually determined by the Alaska Department of Transportation, and some worry the projects will escape the same public scrutiny.

"The Denali Commission has done great projects for rural villages, but this is a whole new ball game," said Emily Ferry of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. "Considering the governor's road-building initiatives, it's a little worrisome to have so much money doled out with such little oversight."

Stevens, addressing a joint session of the Alaska Legislature on Monday, called the measure a "giant investment in Alaska's rural road system."

"In addition, Lisa and I worked closely with the Washington delegation to secure additional funding for ferries and terminals," he said. "This amendment to the highway bill will provide $120 million a year nationwide over the life of the bill for ferry construction and facilities upgrades."

Murkowski spokesman Chuck Kleeschulte said the amendment creating the Denali Access System is a way to provide additional funding to the state's road system without changing the formula that provides Alaska with its other transportation dollars.

Kleeschulte noted that under the new transportation bill, Alaska receives $5.72 in federal funds for every dollar it pays.

"That's the highest rate in the nation," he said. "So it's difficult to change the formula in the bill."

Last year, Murkowski proposed creation of the Denali Transportation Commission, which would have provided $400 million to the state for transportation projects, but the measure did not win legislative approval.

The federal transportation bill, known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003, or SAFETEA, still awaits passage of a House version. The two proposals then go to a conference committee to work out the differences, which could take several months.

"If (SAFETEA) passes in its current form, it will provide Alaska the resources to make progress on our transportation needs," Murkowski said in a prepared statement. "I am especially pleased the Senate adopted a form of my Denali Transportation System provision, on which I have been working for some time. It's not everything I would have wanted, but it will get us started down the right path."

Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, state co-chairman of the Denali Commission, said the group is discussing the method with which it will select projects if Congress approves the funding.

He said the funds will be targeted for village connection projects that provide links to health care facilities. Leman also noted that the money could be used in projects that don't fit clearly within federal transportation guidelines, such as dust control.

• Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.



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