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Alaska's road to Nome appears dead, but advocates not giving up

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 25, 2013

JUNEAU -- A road to Nome has been a dream for years or decades, but the project that was put on the front burner by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been moved to the back burner by current Gov. Sean Parnell.

A study that Palin commissioned in 2009 and pitched in her State of the State address has apparently stalled.

"There is no 'Road to Nome Project,'" said Hannah Blankenship, spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Transportation.

The study started under Palin, and completed in 2011, found that such a road beginning along the Dalton Highway and heading west to the Bering Sea would cost up to $3 billion. "That kind of money just doesn't exist," said Jeff Ottesen, the state's top highway planner.

The state has no plans to build a road to Nome, and no prospects for being able to fund such a byway, he said.

Limited resources are focused on much more limited goals, including maintaining what Alaska already has, combined with strategic uses of state resources on smaller, more realistic projects.

Road to Nome advocates, such as Nome Mayor Denise Michaels, say they're not ready to give up. Given shipping costs to Nome by barge and air, a road would provide a much-needed boost to the city, as well as the isolated communities along the way. And while there is no official road to Nome Project, there's still work being done than can advance that long-term goal, including expanding the Nome road system east.

A more important step to accomplishing the road is an ongoing state project to bring a road to Tanana, Michaels said.

"They have it phased, do a project at this end, do a project at that end," she said. The project at the other end, the road from the end of the Elliot Highway at Manley Hot Springs to Tanana in Interior Alaska, will be a rough route but on the way to an eventual road to Nome. It's identified in 2011's Western Alaska Access Planning Study.

But that's not part of a road to Nome, she emphasized.

"That's a standalone project with its own economic benefit for the village of Tanana," she said, and a road that will help develop mineral deposits along the way. That project will be funded with $10 million allocated by the Legislature, she said.

Ottesen said there is no active road to Nome project, but he acknowledged that the Tanana project could later become part of such a road. "There are some people who are saying 'You are going to Tanana with the current project, and that's just the first step,'" he said. "I supposed you could argue that on a technical basis but that doesn't mean the next step is imminent."

The Tanana Road will be unpaved, barely above what the state calls a "pioneer road," but it will provide access to Tanana, he said.

The Western Alaska Access Planning Study recommended a staged approach for the project, with a connection to Tanana being the first stage.

Nome's Michaels said the city is keeping the road on its municipal priorities list, even though it's apparently stalled.

Lois Epstein, a long-time watcher of state transportation projects, said the Nome road looks dead, and she believes it should be. The state has already spent too much on unworkable projects, she said.

"We have a governor who never says 'no' to a project, never looks at how you are going to finance these big projects, whether they are transportation or energy, over the long run," she said. Epstein, formerly director of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, is currently Arctic Program manager for the Wilderness Society.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com

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