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Millions of dollars in federal money used in Alaska for trails and roadside parks will be diverted to road construction and improvements under a bill passed this year by the Legislature.
Terms of Senate Bill 71 mean expensive trail projects such as the proposed $3.8 million Under Thunder Path, slated to be built in the shadow of Thunder Mountain from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center to the McNugget intersection, could be put on the back burner.
The Trails and Recreational Access for Alaska program, known as TRAAK, typically is used to build and enhance trails and recreational access points such as trailheads or roadside parks.
But under SB 71, authored by Anchorage Republican Sen. Ben Stevens, more than three-quarters of the TRAAK money will be spent on road construction by 2006.
SB 71 also prevents the municipalities of Anchorage and Fairbanks - the only two Alaska cities federally recognized as Municipal Planning Organizations - from spending more than 10 percent of their federal transportation dollars on such enhancement projects.
Jeff Ottesen, statewide planning chief for the state Department of Transportation, said about $330 million in projects across the state await TRAAK funding.
About 8 percent of federal highway money is used on TRAAK projects, but Stevens' bill reduces it to 4 percent in October and then to 2 percent after October 2006.
The change would drop funding of TRAAK projects from between $25 million and $30 million a year to about $15 million a year starting in October. Funding will drop in 2006 to about $7 million a year, Ottesen said.
The funds removed from the TRAAK program will be transferred to DOT's Community Transportation Program, which is used for road projects.
"It's basically saying that right now we need to spend more of our dollars on the roads side and less on the trails side," Ottesen said.
The Murkowski administration has pushed an ambitious program of road-building to encourage resource development and tourism and to connect communities such as Juneau to the mainland highway system.
The TRAAK program was established in 1996 by former Gov. Tony Knowles and between 1998 and 2003 spent more than $150 million for trail projects.
Some of the Juneau projects made possible with TRAAK money include dock and park improvements near the Douglas Island Pink and Chum hatchery, a pedestrian bridge across the Mendenhall River and the paved Kaxdigoowu Heen Dei path along the Mendenhall River.
Trails expert James King said the change in funding would make such projects virtually non-existent. King serves as the executive director of the Juneau-based work group Trail Mix, but spoke in the interview as an individual.
"That's not to say that some projects will not be taken care of through highway construction," he said. If a main highway is being built, DOT may put in a paved pathway alongside the road, King said, "but standalone projects have taken a serious blow."
King noted proposed projects such as the Under Thunder Path, which would provide trail connections to neighborhoods and schools in the east Valley, could lose out over the new funding structure.
The Under Thunder Path is one of more than 100 proposed TRAAK projects across the state.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.