My turn: Let's sell the jet and buy two more

Get rid of the old plane and replace it with newer, more efficient craft

Posted: Sunday, September 17, 2006

Let's sell the governor's jet - and buy two new ones! Actually the controversial jet is owned by the Department of Public Safety, which the governor can use when it is not on a department mission. It is a 22-year-old Westwind II. It replaced one of two 26-year-old twin-engine King Air 200s. Before Gov. Frank Murkowski authorized the jet, former Gov. Tony Knowles used a King Air.

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A reason for selling the jet, and probably the King Air, is to acquire modern, more efficient aircraft to serve Alaskans while there is a surplus of money available. The same can be said for updating the state's aging ferry fleet and other equipment.

Alaska has 594 airfields. The jet can operate in and out of only 142 and the King Air out of only 268, according to the department. In addition to finding faster, more economic, more versatile jets, the state should plan improvements to the airfields where neither aircraft can operate.

The federal government is extending the runways at Alaska's major cities from Ketchikan to Fairbanks, as it is doing throughout the Lower 48. The feds should help the state improve runways at isolated settlements where other access is impractical. Many of those fields provide the only access to federal land.

The new jets and airfields should be designed to enable emergency personnel and equipment to quickly reach any part of the state - such as to the fire that devastated Hooper Bay.

And, of course, the governor, whoever she or he may be, can use it to get around the state quickly on business - a morning cabinet meeting in Juneau, followed by an afternoon public hearing in Fairbanks. Juneau residents should be pushing this as a means of getting government closer to Alaskans whom otherwise find it expensive and time-consuming to travel to Alaska's isolated capital.

In this 21st century of jets and Google, misinformation about Alaska is disheartening. Alaska is criticized for exporting its oil to foreign countries. Not true. North Slope oil has not been exported since 1999, and then only 7 per cent of production.

Alaska is criticized over the five-year federal highway plan approved in July 2005. Politicians and editors prefer the old sound bite - financing "bridges to nowhere" - to fairness and facts. Those three words were used as early as 1930 to describe a bridge near New Orleans.

The federal highway act divides federal gas tax receipts among the states based on the area of the state, the number of miles of highways, the amount of highway taxes contributed and other factors. All states are awarded a share of the highway funds based on that formula. How states spend it is no other state's business, except, evidently, in the opinion of political hacks capitalizing on a lack of knowledge about Alaska.

Although Alaska is one-fifth the land area of the Lower 48, it has fewer miles of highway and contributes less in tax revenue. So, despite its size, it was allocated only $2 billion in highway funds for the five years. Thirty-two states, including all of the Gulf Coast states hit by Katrina, received more. California received the most, $17 billion, followed by Texas at $14.5 billion.

The latest criticism of Alaska comes from the Wall Street Journal and The Economist magazine, proving that greater size doesn't equate to greater intelligence. The magazine referred to Alaska as "America's Welfare State." The Journal complained that a larger amount of federal money per capita goes to Alaska than to other states. Their half-baked reporting left out a few pertinent facts. Of Alaska's 365 million acres, 67 percent, or 244 million acres is owned by the federal government, an area equal to Texas and California combined. Shouldn't owners of that land contribute to the operation of the airports, highways, ferries, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure enabling access to that land?

Nevertheless, if politicians want to reduce spending in Alaska, they could transfer 22.5 million acres of national forests to the state (saving $90 million), or 59.2 million acres of park land (an area greater than any one of 40 states) and so forth. Or, at least return management of subsistence hunting and fishing to Alaska and save more than $3 million a year. Otherwise, as long as Alaska is going to host and provide access to the nation's playgrounds, it's appropriate that the nation contribute in proportion to its size.

• Lew M. Williams Jr. is the retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News who has been a Southeast Alaska journalist since 1946.

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