JUNEAU — Gov. Bill Walker has partially reversed one of his cost-cutting moves, allowing work to proceed on the proposed Ambler Road in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska.
In an announcement Tuesday, Walker said he is allowing state agencies to use $3.6 million in available funds to advance the project. Work on the Ambler Road was temporarily halted in December 2014 when Walker issued Executive Order 271, which froze spending on six major construction projects, including the Knik Arm Crossing, Juneau Access Project, Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project and the Ambler Road.
Less than a year later, Walker relaxed the freeze and allowed work to resume on the Ambler Road with $3.6 million in funding. Work has progressed, and this month’s announcement makes another $3.6 million available. The amounts are likely coincidental, said Neil Steininger of the Office of Management and Budget.
In his statement, Walker said the state’s fiscal situation has improved since he issued the executive order freezing funding. Work on Susitna-Watana and the Knik Arm Crossing remains frozen, and the Juneau Access Project has been canceled.
“The Ambler Mining District provides an immense opportunity for economic development in Northern Alaska, and moving through the EIS process is an important step to make sure that happens,” Walker said in a prepared statement. “Now that Alaska is on firmer financial ground, it is appropriate to spend money on this project.”
On Monday, Alaska Department of Revenue commissioner Sheldon Fisher told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce that oil prices so far this fiscal year (the fiscal year runs July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019) have been high enough that the state’s expected $692 million deficit has been replaced by a surplus.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is planning Ambler Road as a 211-mile stretch of private-access highway that would extend from the Dalton Highway west, through the mountains of the Brooks Range. The road would reach almost to Kotzebue but would not touch that far-northwest city. Instead, the road’s mission is to provide transportation access to several mines under development in the Ambler Mining District.
In August, AIDEA requested Walker release the frozen funds in order to continue work on the road, and Walker’s announcement says his action this week is in response to AIDEA’s request.
Gov.-elect Mike Dunleavy has repeatedly expressed his support for infrastructure projects that support mining, drilling and other resource development in Alaska.
Karsten Rodvik, a spokesman for AIDEA, said the funds were released Nov. 9, and the news release was just a public announcement of the fact.
He said the money will be used to pay fees for HDR Inc., a third-party firm hired to help the Bureau of Land Management finish work on the project’s environmental impact statement. A draft is expected this spring, with the final EIS expected at the end of 2019.
The U.S. Coast Guard (which oversees navigable waterways) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will also have to provide permits for the project to proceed.
AIDEA’s plan for the project envisions it to be built with a public-private partnership and without additional state funding. That structure was previously used with AIDEA’s DeLong Mountain Transportation System, which provides access to the Red Dog lead and zinc mine.
Instead of a single mine, however, the Ambler Road would serve many mines, Rodvik said.
“The road has the potential to unlock thousands of private-sector jobs and provide tax and royalty dollars and economic opportunity for the state, borough, communities, as well as Alaska Native local and regional corporations,” he said by phone.
The project is not without opponents. While more than 60 percent of the road will pass through state land, about one-quarter of its length will travel through federal land, including a portion of the Gates of the Arctic National Park. That fact means the project is opposed by those who support leaving the park undeveloped.
In addition, Native villages in the area have opposed the road out of concern for its effects on traditional lifestyles, including hunting and gathering.
“More than a dozen local villages and subsistence councils including Allakaket, Ambler, Bettles, Kobuk, and the Native village of Kotzebue have passed resolutions in opposition over concerns that the road and potential mines will negatively impact their traditional way of life,” wrote John Gaedeke, chair of the Brooks Range Council, in an email.
“In the end, benefits must be weighed against the costs to see if a project is realistic or merely an empty promise. AIDEA has yet to do that,” he wrote.
Correction: The original version of this article implied that work on the road had been halted between 2014 and 2018 because of Walker’s freeze. The 2014 freeze was temporary and lasted less than a year.