Alaska Digest

Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Alaska, Canada to join in railroad study

JUNEAU - The governments of Alaska and Yukon said Monday they will jointly study the economic and social benefits of a proposed railroad to run through Alaska and Canada.

Gov. Frank Murkowski and Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie signed a memorandum of understanding establishing their intent to start the roughly yearlong study, which is expected to begin in May.

The rail link would run through Alaska, Yukon, northern British Columbia and down to the contiguous United States.

The memorandum establishes the Alaska-Canada Rail Advisory Committee, made up of members of the Yukon and Alaska governments.

The two governments have agreed to split the estimated $5 million cost of the study, Murkowski said.

Murkowski said he envisions a corridor that would incorporate the railroad, fiber-optic communication cables and a potential natural gas pipeline.

"With our talks toward a natural gas pipeline progressing well, such a rail corridor clearly has an application," Murkowski said in a written statement.

Yukon Minister of Economic Development Jim Kenyon said the potential project would allow economic diversification in both countries.

Murkowski said a railroad would help Alaskans transport minerals, coal, gas liquids and other resources and provide an opportunity to promote tourism.

Hospice Foundation changes its name

JUNEAU - The Juneau Hospice Foundation recently changed its name to the Foundation for End of Life Care.

Board President Sioux Douglas said the organization changed the name to reflect its mission more accurately.

"It will help clear up some confusion in the community and make a more clear distinction between our foundation and Hospice and Home Care of Juneau.

The foundation has financially supported Hospice and Home Care of Juneau for several years as part of its mission to ensure hospice care is available in the community. Hospice and Home Care of Juneau is the agency operated by Catholic Community Services to provide hospice care to terminally ill patients and their families.

The Foundation for End of Life Care is a separate charitable organization that educates the public about end-of-life issues and provides funds to groups such as hospice providers.

Climbing season begins at McKinley

ANCHORAGE - Climbing season has begun at Mount McKinley with several changes, including higher climbing fees.

About 1,200 climbers are expected on the mountain between now and mid-July.

Denali National Park rangers and their volunteers will again staff two McKinley camps, one situated two-thirds of the way up the 20,320-foot peak, the other at the 7,200-foot airstrip on the east fork of the Kahiltna Glacier.

The Kahiltna Base Camp, starting point for about nine of every 10 McKinley climbers, consists of two operations: one government-run, the other privately run under agreements with the National Park Service.

Some of the U.S. Army pilots and support staff members who generally help with rescues are now deployed overseas, potentially creating a new expense to the park for chartering aircraft.

The extra expenses come at a time of stagnant appropriations for the Park Service. As a result of tighter budgets, Roger Robinson, the park's lead mountaineering ranger, has been assigned to work as a road ranger on the north side of Denali National Park come June to supplement a depleted staff, he said.

The park, meanwhile, has raised the fee it charges climbers of McKinley (and nearby 17,400-foot Mount Foraker) from $150 to $200. The increase is the first since the fee was established in the 1990s.

Officers protest changes in pensions

ANCHORAGE - A legislative plan to transform state pension systems into individual investment accounts brought protesters to the Alaska Law Enforcement Memorial.

Anchorage police and firefighters rallied Sunday against the plan that would affect future state workers and take effect July 1.

About 130 police officers, firefighters and their families waved signs bearing messages such as "Protect our families while we protect yours" and "House members, please protect public safety."

Supporters of the bill say they hope it will help prevent a deficit in the state's Public Employees Retirement System and Teachers Retirement System from getting larger.

State lawmakers estimate that there is a combined $5.7 billion gap between forecast income and outflow of the pension plans.

Part of their proposed solution is to put new workers on a "defined contribution" plan, where a percentage of each worker's salary would be put into an individual retirement account similar to 401(k) accounts common among private employers.

Retirement benefits would be determined by the performance of the investments, meaning they would depend on how well the stock and bond markets do. Under the proposed plan, the state also would contribute some money to each worker's account.

Government workers now have "defined benefit" retirement plans. Their retirement benefits are guaranteed based on years of service and wages.

A change will make recruiting and retaining police officers more difficult, said Sgt. Mike Couturier, vice president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association and the department's recruiting sergeant.

"It'll make it nearly impossible," he said.

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