My Turn: Voters say 'build those roads'

Posted: Sunday, December 15, 2002

During the fall election campaign, a minority of Alaskans (judging by voting results), criticized Gov. Frank Murkowski's plan to build roads and other infrastructure in Alaska. They questioned whether it could be afforded. The question is can we afford not to expand the highway system?

According to the Department of Transportation, 4.6 billion vehicle miles are driven each year in Alaska. The state ferries account for 18 million vehicle miles (number of vehicles per link times the mileage between links).

The cost to maintain all of the roads in Alaska is $55 million a year. The cost to maintain the state ferries is $85 million a year. So, 0.4 percent of the vehicle miles traveled in the state requires 61 percent of the operating money.

Crank up those bulldozers, governor! (Those thuds are enviros falling in a faint after reading that.) Shorten or eliminate some ferry routes. Build more efficient ferries for where ferries are needed and you might bridge that fiscal gap yet.

A columnist for Alaska's largest newspaper, which was, and still is, critical of Murkowski, wrote recently that the governor and Congressman Don Young are taking us back to the 1950s "by being optimistic and opening up the country so industry can cut, dig and drill." That appears complimentary, but it was ridicule intended as criticism.

They are wrong. We already are stuck in the 1950s. Alaskans are struggling to get out, as they did successfully before. This time, they took that first step on Nov. 5 by electing Murkowski, Young and that 1950s Alaska lawyer Ted Stevens, just as Alaskans elected Bill Egan (governor), Ernest Gruening and Bob Bartlett (U.S. Senators), and Ralph Rivers (congressman) to pull Alaska out of the 1950s depression in the last decade as a territory.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the 1950s, Alaskans were fighting for statehood. Federal mismanagement had almost destroyed Alaska's salmon industry. The fight took 10 years from the time the Alaska Statehood Committee was created in 1949, through voter approval of the state constitution in 1956, through voter approval of the Statehood Act in 1958 and through the election of Egan, Gruening, Bartlett and Rivers.

Today, and for the past decade, Alaskans have been fighting for their rights under statehood, still battling the federal government whose mismanagement this time has almost destroyed the timber industry. Alaskans are trying to regain control of fish and game and build infrastructure to support statehood. Instead of the feds being backed by absentee Republican business interests, they are backed by absentee Democratic environmental interests. Only the names have changed. The goal of locking up Alaska by and for special interests remains the same.

There is one change from the 1950s. At that time, the publisher of Alaska's largest newspaper was a leader in the statehood fight. He was Robert B. Atwood, publisher of The Anchorage Times and chairman of the Alaska Statehood Committee. He was one of only nine people invited to the White House to stand around President Dwight Eisenhower and accept a pen after Ike signed the Alaska Statehood Act July 7, 1958.

Most of the smaller Alaska daily newspapers, the Ketchikan Daily News, the Daily Alaska Empire (Juneau), the Daily Sitka Sentinel and the Anchorage Daily News opposed statehood, parroting outside interests that said Alaskans couldn't afford it (statehood, not roads). C.W. Snedden, publisher of the Fairbanks News-Miner, had joined Atwood in traveling to Washington at his own expense to lobby for statehood.

Now we have the largest newspaper in the state supporting outside interests who don't trust Alaskans with development of their state and its resources - timber, minerals, oil and gas, fisheries, tourism. And it is the smaller newspapers who support resident Alaskans.

Atwood and the people of Alaska won in 1958 when they went to the ballot box and overwhelmingly elected pro-statehood Democrats. Alaska prospered.

The people of Alaska won again Nov. 5, 2002 when they went to the ballot box and overwhelmingly rejected the yoke of the environmental movement, which has hijacked the Democratic Party, by electing a pro-Alaska Republican majority. Alaska will prosper again.

That takes us back to the 1950s? No, it will lead us out of a '50s economy. Sadly, this time there is no major Alaska newspaper around to lead the cheering section.

It must gall some Anchorage journalists to observe that 20-story Atwood Building stretching to the sky in Anchorage and know they will never top it. Never.

Williams is retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.



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