Alaska faces transportation problem

Posted: Monday, October 29, 2007

A few Alaskans, the media and politicians cheered when Gov. Sarah Palin canceled Ketchikan's bridge to its airport on Gravina Island. The only one profiting from that action was the governor, in publicity.

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After the buzz wears off, the governor is going to find she has a serious problem in transportation. And Alaskans are going to hurt if they don't demand that the Legislature and the governor do something.

Sen. Ted Stevens already warned that Alaska can expect fewer federal dollars in the future, thanks partly to the publicity about the earmark for the "Bridge to Nowhere," and partly because he is in the minority in the Senate. Looming to scare Alaskans is reauthorization of the federal highway program. Alaska might not benefit as it has previously.

Looking beyond the Bridge to Nowhere, the governor and Alaskans will discover that more than the Gravina bridge has been halted. In checking with the State Department of Transportation, we find that work on the McCarthy Road environmental impact statement has been stopped, and so has the environmental impact statement on the Sitka access across Baranof Island. Work has not started on the environmental impact statement for the Bradfield Road that would connect southern Southeast to the British Columbia highway system and the Lower 48. Other big Southeast projects such as the Petersburg-Kake road and new ferries are only a dream. The Alaska Marine Highway System estimates a ferry to replace one of the 40-year-old ships will cost $250 million.

The Juneau access road environmental impact statement is challenged in court by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

A bridge project at Naknek is on hold and so is a road project at Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula.

In the expanding urban areas, state officials say there is $5 billion in work held in abeyance to upgrade roads, to add passing lanes or convert two lanes to four lanes. It will take decades to accomplish that work at the current rate of financing.

Stevens warned the governor and others not to spend the money elsewhere that is left over from canceling the Gravina project. The Federal Highway Administration just advised the state that it must pay back funds of any project started but not completed. Starting an environmental impact statement on a project that is impossible to complete is a debt that must be paid back.

Add to that the transportation department's estimate of 60 percent inflation in the last few years in the cost of construction.

Oh, there is a solution if Alaskans have the moxie they had right after statehood when financing the ferry system and other needs. The solution then and now is state bond issues to build the state's infrastructure up to the point it encourages economic development. Providing health care and education is not enough to keep young Alaskans home after they earn their diplomas if there are no good jobs, no convenient way to get to them, or the high cost of living makes other states more attractive.

The trustees of the Alaska Permanent Fund have offered a solution for more than 10 years. That entails a constitutional amendment converting the Fund to a foundation. Then like most foundations, they can withdraw 5 percent of the principal per year, instead of depending upon earnings. The fund earns in excess of 10 percent per year, which means 5 percent stays in the fund to offset inflation.

With the $40 billion in the fund principal, taking out 5 percent, or $2 billion, would allow $1 billion for dividends greater than the Fund's earnings provided this year. And the other $1 billion can go to state expenses, including retiring bond issues to meet the state's current and future infrastructure needs.

Bond issues approved by voters in 1960 financed the first three ferries. Did that generation of Alaskans have more drive and vision than the current Alaskans?

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