OPINION: We need leaders who can transform our economy and rebuild Alaska

bill walker

Alaska has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild our state and transform our economy for the future because of the historic accomplishments of Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and the late Congressman Don Young, who worked together to make sure the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was full of investments in our state.

To appreciate the scale of opportunity this presents, Alaskans should recall the significance of the Alaska Highway to our state in the 1940s and the construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline during the U.S. energy crisis of the early 1970s.

The infrastructure bill authorized billions to be spent nationwide for broadband access, clean drinking water, improved transportation, electric grid renewal, and repairs and upgrades to roads, bridges and airports. While Alaska is expected to receive approximately $4.9 billion in formula funding, we need to actively compete for the more than $100 billion in additional available funding, much of which will be targeted toward rural communities.

This is where the next governor of Alaska comes in. We need competent leaders in place who are laser-focused on bringing home every dollar we can. What a poor reflection on our leaders if we can’t “out-rural” the other 49 states.

Sadly, that’s a real possibility. Our current governor didn’t even mention this historic bill in his State of the State address. And in a somewhat unprecedented moment, all three members of our delegation appeared before the Alaska Legislature to stress that the governor, Legislature, and delegation must work together to ensure Alaska gets the full benefit of this infrastructure funding because, as Sen. Sullivan noted, Alaska is a resource-rich, infrastructure-poor state.

Unfortunately, Congressman Young’s suggestion of an oversight committee of state and federal representatives to pursue funding opportunities is being opposed by the current governor, who clearly lacks interest in this monumental opportunity: he was noticeably absent when Sen. Murkowski held an infrastructure workshop in Anchorage on April 11 attended by more than 1,000 Alaskans from all across the state who lined the walls to hear firsthand from one of the chief architects of this legislation.

I joined my running mate, Heidi Drygas, in attending the workshop, where I enjoyed a discussion with an elected official who provides an example of what genuine leadership on this issue looks like: Sen. Natasha von Imhof. During the event, Sen. von Imhof told me about her plan for Alaska to prepare to compete for these infrastructure dollars. She proposes establishing an Office of Infrastructure to immediately lead and engage all stakeholders, including agencies, the Legislature, tribal organizations, Alaska Native corporations, local governments, universities, trade groups, labor unions, businesses and the Department of Education to maximize the benefits Alaska can receive from this massive investment. I’m grateful that there is leadership from leaders in Juneau like Sen. von Imhof, whose plan I strongly support.

We cannot afford to let this transformational opportunity pass us by. Alaska was recently ranked dead last of all states for post-pandemic economic recovery. Without aggressively competing for these sorely needed infrastructure funds, Alaska’s motto of “North to the Future” will be replaced by “South to the Opportunity.”

Alaska deserves leaders who recognize the transformational opportunity this investment presents. Heidi and I will work tirelessly with all stakeholders to ensure that we take full advantage of this flashpoint moment for our state so that Alaska’s economy can soar once again.

Bill Walker is running for governor and served as the 11th governor of Alaska from 2014-2018. He lives in Anchorage with his wife Donna. His lieutenant governor running mate is Heidi Drygas, who served as the commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development from 2014-2018. She lives in Juneau with her husband Kevin and daughter Olive.

Correction: The initial version of this commentary made an assertion about Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s State of the State address that could not be independently corroborated.

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Bill Walker

Bill Walker, an independent, served as the eleventh governor of Alaska.