Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly Chamber, Palmer, Alaska
Commissioner Michael Barton
Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities
As Lt. Governor Leman pointed out, due to the size of the state and the relative immaturity of our infrastructure, transportation plays a more critical role in the lives of Alaskans than in any other state. Nowhere else in the United States is the cost of an apple, a trip to the doctor, or the ability to access raw materials more directly affected by transportation.
We Alaskans like to tell everyone about how unique our state is. A common story that we like to tell those from the other 49 states is that if Alaska were cut in half, Texas would be the third largest state in the Union. As you can imagine, this geographic scale presents some difficult challenges for those of us responsible for building, operating, and maintaining our state’s transportation systems.
In addition, geographic diversity is an opportunity for us. Because of our diversity, Alaska is, by far, the leader in providing multi-modal transportation services to our residents. From the Alaska Marine Highway System in Southeast Alaska, to the roads and highways of Southcentral and Interior Alaska, to the snowmachine trails in Rural Alaska, to the ports and harbors of our Coastline, to the many airports that connect our state, Alaska’s transportation system remains an essential element of growth and opportunity.
To that end, Governor Murkowski has pledged to develop new transportation infrastructure while continuing to improve the existing infrastructure. The Governor has identified four key projects that we recommend for high priority funding. Those projects are: The Gravina Island Bridge in Ketchikan, the Juneau Access Project, the Knik Arm Crossing in Anchorage, and the Bradfield Canal Road Project in Southeast Alaska.
The Gravina Island Bridge project connects the community of Ketchikan with Gravina Island, where the Ketchikan Airport is located. This direct link will improve travel times, costs, and convenience, as well as remove the need to maintain and operate two ferries. The bridge also provides access to new lands that are suitable for residential, commercial, and industrial purposes. This project received start-up funding as a TEA-21 high-priority project.
The Juneau Access Project will improve surface access to the state’s capital. A 65-mile road along the Lynn Canal is the State’s preferred alternative. The EIS for the project is expected to be completed in early 2004. The project is an essential link in the new regional transportation system. It will improve shipping and travel times, while reducing costs to the state and the public.
The Knik Arm Crossing will connect Anchorage with the Matanuska-Susitna Valley via a new highway and rail bridge. This project will significantly reduce travel times between the state’s three main population centers – Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the Mat-Su Valley – and will help to spur economic development. The Department is currently conducting an engineering feasibility and cost estimate study on this project. The department seeks funding to move this project through the environmental and permitting phases.
The Bradfield Canal Road Project would provide road access from Southeast Alaska to the Cassiar Highway in British Columbia and on to the contiguous 48 states.
In addition to these four projects, the Governor has also established two new programs to develop new roads in rural Alaska. These programs develop Community Access Roads and Economic Development Roads. These programs will provide new transportation links to and between communities and new access for the development of the state’s vast natural resources. Federal assistance in funding these programs is also of national importance since Alaska lands contain vast raw materials needed for our economy.
In addition to high priority projects, Alaska has other needs that could be addressed during reauthorization. It is critical that several provisions of TEA-21 be retained, including:
· Firewalls and Funding Guarantees – Congress should retain the existing firewalls and funding guarantees for the highway and transit programs, but refine the Revenue Aligned Budget Authority mechanism to prevent negative adjustments as long as there is a positive balance in the Highway Trust Fund.
· Alaska Flexibility – [23USC118(e)] Federal law allows Alaska to spend federal highway funds on any public road. This provision is important for providing basic road improvements in rural Alaska.
· Interstate Design Standards and Maintenance Exemption – [23USC103(c)] TEA-21provided exemptions for Alaska’s non-conforming interstate system. Without these exemptions, Alaska would not be able to receive federal highway funds.
· Ferries – Several provisions provide funding for ferries and terminals and should be retained. Alaska would also benefit from Congress addressing several new issues during reauthorization, including:
· Expedited Permitting – Congress should build on the efforts of TEA-21 by reforming the NEPA process, clarifying the responsibilities of participating federal agencies, and adopting a flexible approach to wetlands protection associated with highway development in Alaska where there is a high proportion of the watershed that is already wetlands.
· Planning and Conformity – Congress should provide more flexibility with regard to update cycles for planning and funding documents required by the state and its Metropolitan Planning Organizations.
· Maintenance – The state’s obligation to the FHWA and Federal Government for maintenance oversight should extend no more than the design life of the project for roads other than interstate and NHS. This is particularly important for the smaller communities in Alaska that receive a one-time Federal-aid funded upgrade.
· Funds Transferability – Transferring funds from one federal transportation agency to another is often the most efficient means to manage a large complex project with funding from two or more agencies. Alaska has intermodal needs that often use funds from two or more agencies.
For the benefit of the committee, I have submitted comments with my written testimony on general principles that are important to Alaska with respect to reauthorization. I also look forward to working separately with the Alaska delegation on specific provisions.
In closing, Alaska is a unique state with sizable and varied transportation needs. It is critical that we continue to receive federal support to expand and improve our transportation systems.