My Turn: Alaska is long overdue in building a highway system

Posted: Monday, October 28, 2002

Economic and social advancement of great civilizations have always been tied to functional surface transportation systems. One needs only to study the Roman Empire and its extensive road system to realize that its culture and economy depended on its roads.

The growth and development of the United States (i.e. the South 48) was keyed to the creation of viable surface transportation systems. Initially it was waterways and canals, then post roads, next a multitude of railroads which culminated in the construction of the transcontinental rail lines and the tapping of the resources in the West. Perhaps the greatest achievement of all U.S. transportation efforts was the construction of the Interstate Highway System. This nationwide system has made possible tremendous economic growth and has given the average American family an opportunity to see America and to enjoy cultural, recreation, and vacation pursuits never before possible.

Our nation, like it or not, is married to the automobile; it is a way of life and is the epitome of American freedom. Your auto allows you to go where you want, when you want and do what you want. It allows you to expand your employment opportunities over greater areas, to develop new resources and business ventures and to enjoy more distant cultural and recreation areas.

To be useful automobiles require a functional system of roads. These exist in the South 48, but not in Alaska. We have fewer regional roads than are found in Afghanistan, which is half our size and considered an undeveloped nation.

In territorial days road construction was a first priority. The majority of our meager road system was constructed before statehood by the Alaska Road Commission (ARC). The ARC constructed all of Alaska's major highways including the Seward, Sterling, Glenn, Richardson, Elliott, Taylor, Haines, Glacier, Steese, Denali, McKinley Park and Edgerton.

During the initial 16 years of statehood many new road extensions were undertaken. The Stikine and Taku highways to connect SE Alaska with the Canadian road system at two locations, and provide access to Juneau, were started. Work was underway on the Parks Highway, Chena Hot Springs road, Copper River Highway, Bering River Road, a westward road initially to Tanana, and a northern access road to McKinley Park. Also underway were several roads in SE Alaska which would shorten ferry runs: Rodman Bay Road at Sitka, Berners Bay Road at Juneau and William Henry Bay Road out of Haines.

Only the Parks Highway and Chena Hot Springs Roads were completed before 1974 when a new state administration brought all regional road construction to a screeching halt that has lasted for 28 years.

During the years since statehood, Western Canada (B.C., Alberta, Yukon, and NW Territories) has built regional access roads of an amount which exceeds all regional roads ever constructed in Alaska. These Canadian roads have led to the development of many resources: timber, mining, oil, etc. During this same period in Alaska few roads were constructed. We put all our economic eggs in one basket - North Slope Oil. We are now reaping the results of that nearsightedness. We failed to look to the future and develop a surface transportation system that would support the development of other resources to fill the economic gap when oil diminished.

It is time - actually past time - to get our state back on a resource oriented track. This will occur only upon the creation of viable surface transportation similar to what the Southern 48 states and our Canadian neighbors have already achieved..

We need mom-and-pop type industries, which have always been the backbone of Alaska's economy. Local fishing, logging, mining, etc. can only be achieved when appropriate surface transportation exists.

Regional transportation infrastructure has always been, and should continue to be, a government responsibility.

Big industry which can afford to build its own access to a particular resource is certainly needed, but the evidence is clear that it can not support Alaska by itself. It will be tragic indeed if the only lesson we learn from history is that we don't learn from history.

Bruce Campbell is an Alaska engineer who was with the ARC in the '50s, served in the Egan administrations 1959-75 and again in the Hickel administration 1993-94. He was a commissioner of highways for Egan and commissioner of transportation for Hickel.

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