When U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg visited Kotzebue last week, he took a ride along Cape Blossom Road leading to the future port and toured Ralph Wien Memorial Airport.
The trip was a part of Buttigieg’s three-day infrastructure investment tour across Alaska that also included stops in Anchorage and Haines and aimed to assess the impacts of the 2021 federal infrastructure bill and other federal funding on the daily lives of Alaskans and to learn about regional transportation needs.
“We wanted to make sure that we weren’t just in the easiest places to visit in Alaska, but we got to see a community like Kotzebue,” Buttigieg said during the visit. “We have learned so much about the challenges and the pride that people take in the ways of life here, so unique to here.”
In Kotzebue, Buttigieg, as well as U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan, met on Aug. 14 with the officials from Kotzebue City, Northwest Arctic Borough and regional tribal entities, as well as with representatives from the aviation industry and residents.
“The goal of the trip was really to get a firsthand look and to understand the challenges faced by your beautiful state and the extra special role that aviation plays in the daily life of Alaskans,” said Lynda Tran, senior advisor and director of public engagement at the Office of the Secretary.
Considering the remote location of the Northwest Arctic communities are the high prices of supplies, goods and services there, the visitors also talked about “the strategic importance of having port accessibility for the community,” Tran added.
The City of Kotzebue hosted a round-table discussion on Cape Blossom Port — the project that has been a priority for local government since 1973, aimed to lower the cost of living, Kotzebue City Manager Tessa Baldwin said in a statement.
Currently, shallow draft barges transport goods to town from big cargo ships 15 miles offshore, according to the city’s transportation plan draft released in February. With the new deep-water port, big barges will be able to deliver larger loads of fuel and products to the city’s doorsteps, and the freight cost is expected to reduce.
The new port is also expected according to diversify the local economy — an especially needed benefit, considering the planned closure of the Red Dog Mine in 2031, City Mayor Saima Chase said.
“Our main industry comes from mining zinc and lead at the Red Dog Mine. This essential industry has the potential to impact our region in a way that if the mine were to close, the cost of living would increase even more,” Chase said in a statement. “For this reason, infrastructure development within rural Alaska, especially the Arctic, is crucial.”
For Buttigieg, the conversation about Cape Blossom Port was in the context of the broader set of considerations across other Alaska ports, Tran said.
“Part of what we discussed was proximity to Russia and China, as well as the fact that everything that goes through these ports impacts people’s lives, whether it’s mail or it’s consumer goods,” she said. “We talked about the cost of materials that are available immediately in the Lower 48 and how much more expensive it is to transport these items to these communities.”
Buttigieg’s team toured Cape Blossom Road, currently under construction. When finished, the two-lane, 11-mile-long gravel road will stretch from the Kotzebue Electric Association Wind Farm to a beach access area near Cape Blossom and will allow the transportation of goods from the future port. Construction of the road started in 2021 and is planned to be completed by 2025, according to the city’s transportation plan draft.
Buttigieg and Sullivan spoke with air carriers and Federal Aviation Administration employees and toured the flight service station at Ralph Wien Memorial Airport. Alaska Airlines, smaller independent airlines and Part 135 air carriers walked the visitors through their passenger and cargo services, Tran said.
“On the aviation front, I would say the top-line message that we heard consistently across many different types of stakeholders was that because the communities in Alaska are not typically connected by roadways, aviation plays a really critical role in getting people to everything from medical appointments,” Trans said, “to other communities where they can purchase the traditional things like diapers and other products, which the Lower 48 might just be a quick trip to the grocery store.”
Overall, the visitors learned about how unique challenges such as bad weather and the lack of hotel accommodations affect Kotzebue residents’ ability to get places and receive necessary services, Tran said.
“If we’re doing our jobs right, people never have to think about it because they’re able to get to necessary services, and people can have the quality of life that they want to have because transportation works well,” Tran said. “These challenges that we’ve heard consistently across the various stops that we had in the state were of course eye-opening and interesting and I’m sure will inform future decisions.”
The transportation officials also brought up new funding sources available for transportation projects — for example, the new PROTECT Program, which provides funding for projects that increase resilience to natural hazards including climate change, sea level rise, flooding, extreme weather events and other natural disasters, according to the program description.
It “is really the first time we have ever defined natural infrastructure, and also the first time that we have both formula and discretionary funding that would apply specifically to some of the climate change challenges that Kotzebue and other parts of Alaska are facing,” Tran said.
In addition to transportation-related meetings, Buttigieg’s team had a chance to experience local culture, tasting some of the traditional foods for dinner and learning words in the Iñupiaq language, Tran said.
At the Kotzebue Youth Center, Elder Walter Sampson opened the night with a prayer, the Qikiqtagruk Northern Lights Dancers shared traditional motion dances, and the visitors learned a few Inupiaq dance moves while participating in the invitational dances, NANA spokesman Ty Hardt said.
“The only way to describe it was magical. I mean, we were so warmly welcomed by everyone from NANA, the Northwest Arctic Leadership Team and the broader community that came out for the greet and potluck dinner,” Tran said. “We felt like we were getting just a small taste of the culture, but also we learned that “taikuu” means “thank you” and we practiced it the rest of the time we were in Alaska.”