In one of the largest Alaska construction budget bills in recent history, the Senate Finance committee has approved more than $36 million for northern Panhandle projects - including $10 million for a new University of Alaska fisheries school at Lena Point.
The long-awaited School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences building is one of the biggest priorities for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said Carla Browning, a spokeswoman for the university.
"We're one of the smallest fisheries schools in the Western universe - with the biggest fisheries in the country," said Bill Smoker, director of UAF's fisheries division in Juneau.
"We've been anxiously waiting for (the Senate) to come out with their budget. That ($10 million) is what we were hoping for," he said.
The statewide construction budget, Senate Bill 46, is estimated to contain a half-billion dollars for public-works projects.
It would spend $60 million statewide from Alaska Permanent Fund's Amerada Hess account, which does not affect dividends.
Legislators began haggling over its contents at 5 p.m. Tuesday, introducing about 50 amendments to the bill.
"I'm sure there will be some further shuffling" when the bill reaches the House, said House Finance Committee co-chairman Mike Chenault, R-Kenai.
Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, credited the long-awaited funding for the Lena Point UAF project to bipartisan efforts by Juneau legislators.
"The (minority) caucus decided to take a new tack on the state's operating budget. We're taking the same approach on the (construction) budget and it's paying off for Juneau and other communities around the state," Ellis said.
In 2001, the university's Board of Regents set aside $2.5 million for the Lena Point facility, next door to the $51 million National Marine Fisheries Service lab now under construction. The Legislature then authorized a $9 million bond in 2004.
But the bond covered only half the cost of the project, Smoker said. "We've struggled to downsize the project but it really isn't feasible because construction costs have inflated over the last few years."
The School of Fisheries and Oceans has operated in Juneau for more than two decades but its classrooms, labs and faculty are split between two Juneau locations.
The new building will free up cramped lab space and classrooms at the University of Alaska Southeast, one of those locations, Browning said.
"The aim is to get into one building with some room to grow a little bit. It won't be an extravagant structure. It will be about half of the size of the University of Washington's fisheries school," Smoker said.
The bill includes funding for other northern Panhandle projects - such as $4 million to renovate the Glacier Valley Elementary School - pending the outcome of a separate education bill by Sen. Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage.
Senate Bill 46 includes about $36 million for northern Panhandle construction projects but it would attach another $18 million dollars to pay for the school projects upon the failure of Stevens' education bill.
Stevens' bill, Senate Bill 155, would pay for school and university construction and maintenance projects with Alaska Permanent Fund earnings, but so far, it hasn't gathered sufficient support.
The bill also earmarks $2 million in federal funds for environmental study of the proposed Bradfield Canal road from Wrangell into British Columbia.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Juneau Empire ©2014. All Rights Reserved.