U.S. transportation secretary touts federal investments in port, ferries during Alaska visit

Thirty-foot tides, glacial silt and iron-eating microbes were top of mind for U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg after his visit to the Port of Alaska in Anchorage on Tuesday.

Buttigieg’s first trip to Alaska came as part of a multi-destination tour touting impacts of the federal infrastructure bill that was signed into law in 2021 by President Joe Biden, with support from the Republican members of Alaska’s congressional delegation. The Port of Alaska, long in need of improvements to contend with the impacts of earthquakes — along with the daily wear caused by microbes, tides and silt — was one of several early recipients of funding through the bill.

“That investment and the larger Port of Alaska modernization program that’s underway will replace the aging docks with new ones that can last for generations. It’s going to mean that the port will better be able to continue moving consumer goods to the places where they’re needed most,” said Buttigieg. “In other words, the investments that we make in this port today will pay off for the American people.”

Buttigieg toured the port alongside Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson and Assembly Chair Christopher Constant, along with several other assembly members and state lawmakers.

Bronson said he hopes to receive additional federal funding for the port, with an ultimate goal of 60% of the port modernization project funding coming from federal dollars. The project is estimated to cost $1.9 billion and take several years to complete.

“The federal government component has been staggered, but we think we’ll get there. We’ve asked for a 60-40 split,” said Bronson, adding that he and the Assembly are in agreement in addressing the needed improvements to the port, through which much of the food and fuel imported to the state is delivered.

“We’re not asking the federal government to pick up the whole tab. It would be nice. Historically, in our country, as we moved from east to west, there are states, there are cities, jurisdictions, that got all their funding from the federal government and the highway system,” Bronson said. “We shouldn’t be last. We should get our bite at the federal apple for something of this importance.”


Buttigieg said the $68.7 million award to Anchorage’s port is the largest one given so far through the Department of Transportation’s port modernization grant program. He also said more funding could be headed to Alaska through the federal infrastructure bill, which is expected to provide support for projects throughout the coming decade.

“No one level of government, even the federal government, can do it alone. The need is too great. But we do want to make sure that we’re a really good partner, especially now that we do have this level of funding. And when we see the state committing, as the state has committed in many of these projects, to do its share, it makes it that much easier for us to be a good partner on the federal side,” said Buttigieg.

The state Legislature last year approved $200 million in state funding for the port modernization project, in part to qualify for grants from the federal government. The Anchorage Assembly earlier this summer approved a tariff increase to raise funds for the port project.

Buttigieg began his three-day Alaska trip on Monday in Kotzebue, where he was accompanied by Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan in meetings with community leaders to discuss infrastructure needs in rural Alaska, and had his first taste of muktuk.

“There’s a kind of understated depth of, I think, rightful pride in the ways of life that people maintained here for a very long time and an expectation that the U.S. will keep its promise to the people in Alaska, whether it’s tribal communities, whether it’s municipalities like Anchorage, to support people and places that are both part of the American fabric, and disproportionately strategically important for our economy and for our national defense,” Buttigieg said.

[A year after passage, landmark climate law is creating a ‘different world’ for Alaska renewables]

In Anchorage, he also met with leaders of the Alaska Federation of Natives and with aviation industry representatives, including from medevac service Guardian Flight and from Alaska Airlines Cargo.

He was then scheduled to continue to Haines, Skagway and Juneau on Wednesday, with plans to meet Alaska Marine Highway System officials alongside U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, where he would discuss the impacts of a $200 million grant awarded to Alaska ferries.

“Marine highways are important in many parts of the country, but I want to get a better sense of what it means in places where that is the primary or even only means of an economic and transportation link to the outside world,” he said.

Buttigieg said the Department of Transportation is trying to work alongside project sponsors, especially from smaller communities, that don’t necessarily have “the size of scale or resources to easily navigate federal processes” to ensure they can take advantage of funding opportunities available through the infrastructure bill.

“When I was a mayor, knocking on the door of the Department of Transportation, I didn’t have a federal relations person on staff. We weren’t a community of that size,” said Buttigieg, who served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, until 2020. “We don’t want it to be expensive to get help, especially for the communities who most need our support.”

Buttigieg has made no new policy or funding announcements during his trip, but said that his time in Alaska made him consider possibly revising some of the regulatory requirements for funding applications.

“Lots of regulation or terms and conditions that go with our grants make perfect sense in the Lower 48 but may not add up in a place like Alaska. Sometimes those are set by Congress and there’s nothing you can do without Congress. Other times we may have flexibility that’s under our control and I want to explore that,” he said.

Part of his takeaways were the result of seeing places in person he had previously only read about.

“One of the biggest things that you notice right away is the sheer physical size of the state. And the proportions of this state mean that it has different needs in terms of infrastructure, especially relative to the population here. So we of course understood that on paper, but when you really see what it means to live in a community that’s not even connected by road to the rest of the state, it give you a deeper sense of the needs and the importance of all different forms of infrastructure that people count on,” said Buttigieg.

“To see the power of the currents, the buildup of the glacial silt, the physical effect of the corrosion on the metal and the pilings that hold up this port — it’s just different when you actually see it.”

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The AP and Report for America and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at