Governor's transport plan hopes to dump feds' environmental report requirements

Posted: Sunday, March 13, 2005

Gov. Frank Murkowski wants to bypass federal highway money and instead use state debt to pay for his $145 million transportation initiative, a move that would let the state avoid conducting environmental impact statements.

By passing on the federal funds, Alaska would not have to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, which include conducting environmental impact statements for the highway projects. That's a major draw for the state Department of Transportation in using state funds.

"An EIS can take years to finish," said John MacKinnon, deputy commissioner for the Department of Transportation. "If it takes you three, four more years because of the NEPA process, that costs you three, four more years of money."

Using state funds also gives the state flexibility to conduct several phases of a project at once, instead of the more linear federal process, MacKinnon said. That, too, would help work crews finish the projects faster, he said

One of the proposed projects is a $19 million extension of Dowling Road in Anchorage. That extension would go through city parklands, which with federal money would require a lengthy approval process, MacKinnon said. Not so with state funds.

MacKinnon says skipping the federal process doesn't mean the state is skimping on environmental scrutiny.

"We're not skirting around getting permits," he said. "You're still going through a significant public process."

But the National Environmental Policy Act is there for a reason, said a spokeswoman for the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, a transportation advocacy group.

"I think any step to cut the public out of the planning process is rarely in the public's best interest," said Emily Ferry. "That process was created to make sure we consider all of the impacts before we spend and possibly waste all our money."

The highway projects in Murkowski's transportation plan include relieving congested arteries in and around Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula and Fairbanks, along with work on Interior highways and several access roads leading to natural resources.

The projects were chosen because they were far enough ahead to be completed after five years of being funded, MacKinnon said.

Using state money to complete those projects would help cut the backlog of highway projects, a backlog that is partly due to the protracted federal process and partly due to a reduction in federal funding over the past two years, he said.

Ferry said the solution isn't to use state money, but to make better choices in spending the federal money for highway projects. She mentioned such projects as the proposed road from Skagway to Juneau, estimated by the state to cost $281 million, but which opponents said will cost much more.

That money would be better spent upgrading existing infrastructure, she said.

"There are plenty of projects that are in need of repair, as indicated by the governor and his initiative," Ferry said.

The transportation initiative is the biggest chunk of a proposed $343 million capital projects bond that would be repaid with earnings from a special account within the Alaska Permanent Fund, under the governor's plan.

Measures are pending in the Legislature authorizing the use of earnings from the $424 million Amerada Hess account - named after a legal settlement with the oil companies operating in the state - and setting up a corporation to handle the debt.

The measures are House Bills 187 and 188.

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