Testimony of George P. Wuerch

Mayor,

Municipality of Anchorage

April 14, 2003

 

Good morning madam chair, members of the committee, my name is George Wuerch and I am the Mayor of the Municipality of Anchorage. I am here this morning to testify in support of several changes to federal laws that impact public works and to champion two specific projects that I believe will greatly benefit the majority of state residents. I also want to acknowledge from the outset the tremendous impact that TEA-21 and its successor legislation has had on this state and this nation.

 

One particular federal act with which we wrestle is the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which has had grave consequences for many of our local public works projects. Because of Alaska's unique geography, practically every project we undertake requires us to navigate this cumbersome and costly process.

 

The Act is not the problem so much as its implementation. It takes far too long, it is expensive to comply, it invites litigation by environmental groups, and it is inconsistently implemented by each agency of the Federal Government. I'm sure the committee has heard these complaints aired before. But from our standpoint, what's really missing is recognition of the legitimate role for local government in the decision-making process. NEPA was designed to protect the integrity of the environment, but it has morphed into a regulatory strait jacket which supplants the economic needs of the community with agency preferences for environmental preservation.

 

Let me be very specific on this issue. The problem lies in the application of NEPA to local decisions to expand or improve on facilities that already exist; such as changing highway intersections and adding traffic lanes to existing roads.

 

We are stewards of our own community and Congress ought to recognize that by vesting communities with sufficient authority and latitude to undertake certain types of transportation projects in a more efficient manner.

 

Now that I've outlined some of the difficulties we face in working with one federal law, let me move on to a more pleasant topic - how the federal government can assist us in building the infrastructure necessary for this region to grow and prosper.

 

A roadless state, such as Alaska, needs be able to apply traditional transportation funding to some non-traditional uses. Specifically, we are requesting that TEA-21 funds be allocated for expenditure on marine component infrastructure. I am not talking about funding for one-time projects, but rather we seek a reoccurring revenue stream for marine projects. More than 80 percent of the goods that flow into Alaska pass over the docks of the Port of Anchorage. Our municipality is currently pursuing a major redevelopment program at the Port so it can adequately serve our community, as well as the rest of the state, for the next half century. You'll hear more about this project from the Port, but I wanted to touch on the need for programmed federal assistance on an ongoing basis, just like most MPOs receive for roads. Our waterside facilities are critical to this community, the state and the federal government.

 

I would also like to reinforce the critical need for a road connection across Knik Arm to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Anchorage is a city hemmed in by geography and federal land ownership. While we continue to build our economy and city, we are painfully aware of the diminishing amount of land available for development in the Anchorage Bowl. As an example, Anchorage has less than 7,000 acres of potential industrial land remaining within the entire

 

Municipality. By comparison, the Mat-Su Borough has hundreds of thousands of undeveloped acres just a short mile across the water. Our two economies are already linked because many of that borough's citizens are part of our workforce in Anchorage. But in order for the Mat-Su Borough to take advantage of our existing infrastructure for its own economic development, it needs this road/rail connection as much as we do.

 

As you are aware, Metropolitan Planning Organizations, or MPOs, are chartered by the federal government to make transportation-planning decisions within their geographic boundaries. Our MPO is known as Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions, or AMATS. It would be extremely valuable to our planning process to be able to take into account the transportation needs of local governments that are adjacent to our own. In our case, that would be the Matanuska Susitna Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Unfortunately, neither of our sister municipalities qualify for MPO status due to population density and are not granted the same level of self-determination that we are. We need, therefore, federal recognition to assemble and seek funding for regional priority projects in conjunction with our next store neighbors.

 

We also believe that the funded allocation to MPOs should be by direct transfer from the federal government. Passing the money through state agencies is simply inconsistent with the ideal of local control in the planning and implementation of transportation solutions. As part of the state budget process, the non-federal share could be provided by statute for any community with an approved MPO.

 

I certainly appreciate the opportunity to address the committee and share some of our ideas on transportation issues that affect the state. I also want to express my appreciation for the Committee's work in Alaska.