My Turn: Trails, roads and highway safety

Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2003

Gov. Murkowski's strong advocacy for improving our state's economy through investments in the transportation system and infrastructure has a proven history of success. The best example is probably Prudhoe Bay. Revenue from the North Slope oil fields provides almost 85 percent of the money that runs the state. The Dalton Highway made development of the North Slope possible, and without it, Alaska's North Slope would just be an area where caribou feed, rather than our primary economic engine and an area where caribou feed.

The governor's program, which is focused on expanding transportation access for all Alaskans, includes several components. Large projects are envisioned that will provide better access to major population centers, such as the Knik Arm crossing to improve transportation between Anchorage, the Mat-Su and points north; and the Juneau Access Project to build a road from Juneau to Skagway, connecting SE with the North American highway system. The program also includes new roads connecting smaller rural communities, and the Roads to Resources plan. Increased job opportunities in rural Alaska will be an important result.

The TRAAK program was actually established in 1993 by former Gov. Hickel when it was known as the Governor's Outdoor and Recreational Trails Advisory Committee (GORTAC). The purpose of the GORTAC was to review the state's use of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Symms National Recreational Trails Act and operated under the Department of Natural Resources. In 1996, the GORTAC was replaced by the Trails and Recreational Access for Alaska, or TRAAK, and placed under the Department of Transportation when federal highway funds were added to the funding source.

Federal-Aid Transportation Funds are given to the state in a number of different "pots" that can only be used on certain types of roads. Without getting into too much detail, that portion of federal funds that goes into transportation enhancement or TRAAK projects is only a portion of the money that goes toward Community Transportation Projects. Community Transportation Projects, or CTP, are projects on all state and locally owned roads that are not part of the national or Alaska highway system. This includes many locally owned streets that are reconstructed by the state with federal dollars matched by state dollars. Out of the whole state-wide allocation of funds for Community Transportation Projects, a portion is required to be set-aside for TRAAK.

The TRAAK set-aside for the sox-year period from 1998 through 2003 was $43 million. However, the total amount spent on TRAAK-specific projects during that period was in excess of $158 million. This amount does not include separated bike paths or scenic waysides that were included in projects funded under other federal aid transportation categories. Were it possible to split out the cost of these additional transportation enhancements, the total spent would be much higher.

The recent Empire article correctly stated there are about $330 million in the wish list of projects across the state that await TRAAK funding. However, no mention was made that there is a backlog of CTP projects in excess of $3.1 billion and more than $4.1 billion in needs outside the CTP program. These non-TRAAK needs are largely capacity and safety improvements to existing roads, highways and intersections to make them safer for the traveling public and, hopefully, reduce highway injuries and deaths.

The notion that this change in funding will make TRAAK projects virtually non-existent couldn't be farther from the truth. The state will continue to fund TRAAK projects above the minimum amount required and additionally fund pathways, waysides and rest stops as part of larger highway projects. It is no secret, however, that emphasis is shifting back toward safety improvements. While the title of the article was "Trail money rerouted to roads," it should have been more accurately titled "Road money rerouted to trails routed back to roads."

I realize there may be some people who complain their health will suffer because they won't have convenient access to a trail or bike path. Some people may even have to drive to a trail so they can take a walk. However, it is certain that many more will surely be injured or killed if we don't put our emphasis back on highway safety and capacity improvements.

John MacKinnon, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Transportation.

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