Stimulus projects boosting Alaska construction jobs

Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2010

A dangerous stretch of highway out the road north of Juneau is getting upgraded to modern standards, thanks to the sometimes controversial federal effort to provide a stimulus to the economy.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"It's killed a lot of high school kids on prom night," said Terry Miller, an owner of Miller Construction, the Juneau-based contractor completing the $10 million project.

The federal stimulus, to which some Alaska politicians have objected, has brought the state $2.1 billion in federal stimulus spending. At $3,145 per person in the state, that's tops in the nation.

No other state even comes close to the federal government's largess in Alaska. The next highest states were South Dakota, Montana and North Dakota, all below $2,000 per person, according to an analysis of spending authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known more commonly as "stimulus" funding.

The data showing where stimulus money is going comes from the journalism non-profit ProPublica's analysis and aggregation of federal spending records.

Those states all share with Alaska an unemployment rate that's below the national average, including South Dakota, where the recent rate of 3.8 percent in was the lowest in the nation.

Nevada, with a worst-in-the-nation unemployment rate of 14 percent, received only $1,036 in stimulus money per person.

Florida, with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates, received the least stimulus money, only $915 per person.

The idea of federal stimulus spending, which amounted to $355 billion dollars since passage of the 2008 measure. In Alaska, former Gov. Sarah Palin was one of two governors to reject some stimulus money. The Alaska Legislature called itself into special session for a veto override in order to accept the money.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Anchorage, is facing a re-election challenge in the Republican primary from Anchorage attorney Joe Miller. Her ads point out she voted against the "failed" stimulus plan.

Murkowski was joined in opposition by U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Fort Yukon, while U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Anchorage, voted in favor.

State Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said it wasn't surprising given partisan politics criticism of the federal government's stimulus is becoming a political issue, at last in the Republican primary.

"But that doesn't change the reality that the stimulus has helped us," she said.

Only a portion of the stimulus funding has been spent. ProPublica reported that as of June 30, 44 percent of the money had been spent, 25 percent was "in process," and 30 percent was left to spend.

Alaska, with a shorter summertime construction season, didn't get fully geared up until this summer, said Peter Freer, who is monitoring stimulus spending for Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Transportation was the single largest area of stimulus spending.

"Last summer was a start-up summer and only a handful of projects got underway," Freer said. "This summer almost all projects are underway."

Freer said the 2009 stimulus act's projects are expected to wrap up in 2011, and at least four have yet to begin.

Some of the projects are almost done, but the biggest local project is Miller Construction's ongoing rebuilding of five miles of highway from Amalga Harbor to the Eagle River Kayak Launch.

That stretch of road has been the site of several fatalities, not all of which were the "high school prom" accidents to which Miller referred.

The project now underway will widen the 24-foot road with no shoulders to 32 feet, with four-foot shoulders.

The bank has also been cut back to improve sight lines and straighten out curves, said Loren Gehring, the Transportation Department's project manager for the Amalga Harbor road project.

The new construction beyond Amalga Harbor will match the highway from Tee Harbor to Amalga Harbor, he said.

Miller said the residents pulling onto the road will be able to see traffic coming, and shoulders will enable cars to pull off the road, substantially improving safety.

"It will be a 55 mile-per-hour road, instead of a 45-mph road that people drive at 55," Miller said.

Miller Construction appreciated being able to get the stimulus-funded project, he said. Without it, they'd likely have only 25 employees instead of the current 46.

"It's important to us, and its important to the people who work for us," he said.

State Department of Labor data shows construction jobs are up in Alaska over the last year, even though the economy continues to struggle.

Many of those construction jobs are fully paid for by stimulus money, such as the Amalga Harbor work, while and others were partially stimulus-funded.

"All over Southeast, that's about the only work going on right now," Miller said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@

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