Alaska News

Feds give $2 million to repair Dalton Highway; state hopes to reopen in a week

The federal government announced Friday it will provide $2 million in emergency funds to help repair the flood-ravaged route in northern Alaska leading to some of the nation's largest oil fields.

The northern portion of the gravel Dalton Highway -- already closed for 12 days -- is expected to be reopened next Friday. The state transportation department, however, calls that date "tentative" because of uncertainties that include weather conditions.

"Challenges still remain for the repairs," the state agency said in a release, including waterlogged dirt excavated from nearby pits. "The material being hauled is saturated with water, so it is taking days of grooming to make patches drive-able."

The road was heavily damaged by washouts along its last 25 or so miles after the Sagavanirktok River overflowed its banks in what longtime observers have called unprecedented flooding.

The Federal Highway Administration, noting that up to 250 trucks a day use the 415-mile highway, said it would make $2 million immediately available to help the state transportation department repair the road, a corridor also used by tourists trying to reach the Arctic Ocean.

"The Dalton Highway is important to transport freight, and Alaska's economy relies on this vital link," said acting Federal Highway Administrator Gregory Nadeau in an announcement issued Friday. "These emergency relief funds will help restore the road, and protect the state's economy."

State officials a week ago had estimated damage at roughly $5.1 million, but they added that getting an accurate estimate was difficult because much of the road was still flooded.

The toll is expected to rise.

"We expect to be adding costs that will accrue to that total," said Meadow Bailey, the state transportation department's public information officer. "The $2 million they're allocating now is a quick release to help us immediately alleviate the cost. We feel like the entire emergency response will be reimbursed."

The northern section of the highway was closed May 18. The state began repairs over Memorial Day weekend after floodwaters receded enough, with plans to create "primitive" one-lane roads in damaged areas to get traffic to the oil fields moving.

"The department aims to have a road width of at least 20 feet through the project zone, but there will likely be sections of road that will be one lane with delineators or yield signs," the state's release said. "This is to allow traffic to the North Slope to resume as soon as possible."

Some 40 heavy-equipment vehicles are attacking the damage from the north and south ends of the flood zone. "On the south end, crews have progressed to just north of Mile 397 and will be going back to install culverts today. On the north end, contractor staff are repairing a culvert pipe that failed early this morning near Mile 412.5 and will bridge a breach just north of Mile 412," the release said.

The closure has forced some businesses in Deadhorse, an industrial base for the oil fields, to ration supplies or fly them in at added expense.

During the earlier closure, some 1,000 trucks full of freight were backed up.

There was such a large number in part because remote fields such as ExxonMobil's Point Thomson wanted to resupply before ice roads melted and cut off road access.

Companies in March expected a second round of flooding and possible road closures when temperatures warmed, so they stocked up on supplies after the highway opened.

Still, a large number of truckloads are likely standing by this time, too, though state and transportation officials said they did not have an overall count.

Jeanine St. John, a vice president of Lynden, one of several transportation companies hauling supplies to the oil fields, said the company has about 175 to 200 truckloads backed up.

The flooding stemmed from heavy rains last summer and autumn that never drained to the ocean, creating an ice dam that forced the Sagavanirktok River to overflow. That led to a brief closure starting in late March before high temperatures arrived in May to melt the ice, leading to a second round of flooding and a much longer closure.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or