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Alaska needs to wise up about fed transportation money

Lois Epstein
OPINION: Alaska better think twice about mega road projects, because Uncle Sam won't be picking up the tab. Pictured: Traffic on the Glenn Highway. Erik Hill

If your local road or bridge needs critical repairs or upgrades, don’t count on them happening anytime soon. As of Aug. 1, the U.S. Department of Transportation will reduce federal transportation funding to states by an average of 28 percent.

So far, Alaska has responded with a shrug, and continues to charge forward with expensive, non-essential road projects. “Federal highway fund not worrying AKDOT” said a front-page Juneau Empire headline on July 7. But the state should be worried because Alaska will not receive a significant portion of its expected road-related reimbursements from the federal government until Congress approves adequate, multi-year funding for the Highway Trust Fund, which is unlikely to happen soon, if ever.

In its long-range transportation planning, Alaska needs to prepare for a worst-case federal and state funding scenario. We are among the states most reliant on federal money for roads and public transportation, so any federal shortfall would have a disproportionately large effect. The current tax-averse Congress is unlikely to maintain -- much less increase -- transportation funding. With Alaska’s oil production and oil tax revenue in long-term declines (regardless of the status of SB 21 and Ballot Measure 1 on the August ballot), there’s a perfect storm forming for dramatically reduced road funding in Alaska.

Alaska’s road plans need to focus on widely recognized needs: safety and maintaining existing infrastructure. According to state data, 45 percent of our roads require immediate pavement repairs. Alaska’s roads show worse pavement conditions than when they were last studied in 2009. Additionally, we have 74 “structurally deficient” bridges.

Because of their high cost, new roads should be built only if there’s a broad consensus for their need. Instead, the Parnell administration has pursued a wish list of expensive, special interest road projects: the Knik Arm and Gravina bridges (the latter canceled by Gov. Palin and then revived by Gov. Parnell); the Juneau road/ferry project, the Ambler mining district road; the Umiat oil and gas development road; and the West Susitna mining and energy development road. These projects have a total estimated cost of more than $3.4 billion, with the sources of funding for $3 billion of those costs still unidentified.

When the state recently held public meetings on its draft long-range transportation plan, many participants expressed concerns about the state pursuing expensive mega-projects at the expense of local transportation needs, especially since the mega-projects eventually may be canceled because of their high costs, the limited funds available, and other problems. As examples, more than $84 million has been spent for the proposed $1.6 billion Knik Arm Bridge (with $55 million more appropriated by the legislature in 2014), a project that is unlikely to obtain a low-cost federal loan needed for construction, and more than $26 million has been appropriated for the more than $330 million Ambler mining road in the Interior, which has extensive local opposition including anti-road resolutions from several communities.

While Alaska may be in better financial shape than other states, our checkbook nevertheless has a limited balance. If the state makes up for federal shortfalls and continues to pursue all the road and bridge projects listed above, it will not have enough money for maintaining existing transportation infrastructure, education, pensions and other known needs.

It’s time for Gov. Parnell and the Alaska Department of Transportation to accept federal and state funding realities and to select real transportation needs over special interest wants.

Lois Epstein is an Alaska-licensed engineer and the Arctic Program Director for The Wilderness Society in Anchorage. She is a former director of the nonprofit Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, a statewide transportation watchdog organization.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.