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Alaska Legislature

Price tag for earthquake road work reaches $25 million -- so far

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: December 13, 2018
  • Published December 13, 2018

JUNEAU — The price tag for temporary road repairs after the Nov. 30 Southcentral earthquake has reached $25 million, a Legislative hearing revealed Thursday.

On Thursday in Anchorage, the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee voted unanimously to allow the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to accept up to $35 million in federal money, but DOT officials said after the meeting that some of that figure will be kept in reserve for possible future disasters.

“So far, I don’t think we’ve gone above $25 million in our assessment (of earthquake repairs),” said Judy Chapman of DOT by phone. “Whether we’ll need it all for the earthquake, or we’ll need it all for some other issue that comes up during the year, I don’t know.”

The state budget approved earlier this year allowed DOT to receive up to $10 million in federal aid; Thursday’s vote boosts that total to $35 million — the $25 million increase is devoted to earthquake recovery.

“We’re trying to receive the federal funding to accelerate the reconstruction of the state,” Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and chairman of the committee, said before the vote.

Workers repair damage to the International Airport Road onramp at northbound Minnesota Blvd. on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. The road was damaged during a strong earthquake that shook Southcentral Alaska. (Courtesy Ryan Marlow / Alaska Aerial Media)

Shannon McCarthy, a DOT spokeswoman, said by phone that the federal funding is paying for “all the emergency response and the temporary repairs” following the earthquake.

DOT has identified 111 road and bridge sites requiring repair, and Chapman said snow may be obscuring other problems.

“We do recognize that there are probably issues we haven’t uncovered yet,” she said.

Technically, Thursday’s action expands a line item in the state budget that covers what’s known as “receipt authority,” or the ability to accept federal grants and aid. In years without an emergency, that particular line item acts like an empty box — no federal money is needed, so none is requested and none is spent.

Reconstruction following the Nov. 30 earthquake requires a much larger box, and the state Office of Management and Budget requested the increase. The budget and audit committee is permitted to adjust the budget “to accept additional funds for items already in the budget from non-state sources,” according to an explanation provided during the 29th Legislature, and it did so Thursday.

The Federal Highway Administration provided $5 million in up-front aid to the state, but repairs above that amount have been paid for with state general funds. The state will request reimbursement from the federal government.

Nancy Singer, a spokeswoman for the Federal Highway Administration, said in early December that the federal government would pay 100 percent of the costs associated with repairs done within 180 days of the disaster.

“Anything that they do during that 180-day window is 100 percent federal, but it’s all based on a reimbursement, though. FHWA provided a $5 million initial pot of money, and after that, they’ve been spending general funds and getting reimbursed by federal highways,” said Rob Carpenter, a budget analyst for the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division.

McCarthy has repeatedly said that the temporary repairs will need to be replaced with permanent fixes in warmer weather. Those permanent repairs will take place under the federal government’s normal cost-sharing strategy: The state pays 7 percent, and the feds pay the rest.

Carpenter said there is some wiggle room on the 180-day limit: Projects begun (but not finished) before the limit may be fully reimbursable, and the federal government could even extend the deadline because of Alaska’s lengthy winters.

As for how much those permanent repairs will cost, not much is known.

“We don’t have a good bead right now on an estimate for the total repairs,” Chapman said.

Carpenter said that when he spoke with DOT experts and asked for a guess, he was told the total cost could be between $60 million and $65 million.

“They threw out $60 million to $65 million in total, but again, that’s not knowing what’s going to materialize in the spring,” he said.

It also doesn’t include the cost of repairing things other than roads and bridges.

During Thursday’s Legislative meeting, for example, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, asked whether the money could be used to rebuild schools. He said he has heard the cost of repairing schools in the Anchorage School District could be between $50 million and $100 million.

“This particular appropriation for $25 million is specifically for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities,” responded Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River and the spouse of DOT commissioner John MacKinnon.

Sen. MacKinnon declared a potential conflict of interest before voting on the proposal in front of the committee but was permitted to vote.