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US Transportation secretary touts new Alaska infrastructure spending

Published: Dec. 6, 2021 at 4:24 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska is set to receive billions of dollars from a new federal infrastructure package and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is heading the agency in charge of dispersing large chunks of that funding.

“Alaska, like so many places in the country, has a real need for more infrastructure investment,” he said in an interview with Alaska’s News Source on Monday that was offered by the department.

There are billions of dollars earmarked for the state’s roads and bridges. Some of that funding is set to be distributed through formula programs and this bill will add more to them over each of the next five years.

“That pie just got a lot bigger and that’s something you’ll see right away,” Buttigieg said.

Other programs need to be created from scratch, including some that seek to rebuild the beleaguered Alaska Marine Highway System.

“Support for ferries, I know, was a big priority for Sen. (Lisa) Murkowski, and we heard from the entire delegation about this, and I’m glad that it’s in this package,” Buttigieg said.

There is funding to improve terminals and to build new ships. Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced on Saturday that he wants some of that funding to replace the aging M/V Tustumena. Alaska is also set to receive funding for a new electric or low-emitting ferry from the bill.

Buttigieg said that pilot program “will ultimately benefit the entire United States” by showing how a new ferry propulsion system can work.

Ten state legislators reached out to him in September, asking that regulations be enacted to ensure that this new federal ferry funding not be allowed to supplant state spending. He said that is not the intention of the bill.

“This is about making sure we have more than we started with, that’s our expectation in partnering with the states,” he said.

But he did not say that there would be a specific prohibition against that, explaining the balancing act of improving existing service and infrastructure.

The federal transportation department announced last month that three Alaska communities would receive funding through separate discretionary grants: They include a new dock for Haines, new harbor facilities for Cordova and a new trail system on Nelson Island.

Haines Mayor Douglas Olerud said officials, who had applied five or six times for federal assistance, were ecstatic to hear $20 million would be provided to help build a new dock. The existing one was built in the 1950s.

“We got a report a couple of years ago that the face of the dock was about ready to fall into the Lynn Canal,” he said.

Haines may be on the road system, but shipping fuel and freight is a lot cheaper for the community than using trucks that come from Seattle.

“It gets a lot more expensive when you put rubber tires under those containers instead of putting them on one big barge,” Olerud said.

Only one in 10 applicants for this annual infrastructure spending were approved. Cordova officials were surprised and excited to hear that they would be receiving $20 million to help build a new harbor.

“A viable harbor is critical, and quite frankly, we’ve had a very unviable harbor for a few too many years,” said Helen Howarth, Cordova’s city manager.

She explained that some of the harbor’s floats have broken loose in the past, as have some boats after cleats holding them in place rusted away.

On Nelson Island, communities like Mertarvik, Toksook Bay and Nightmute are set to be connected through a new and improved trail and road system. The federal government will provide $12 million for that project.

Robert Pitka, tribal administrator at Nunakauyak Traditional Council, said that the new trail is particularly important as Toksook Bay has a medical clinic. Residents from the other communities need to catch an airplane or take a boat for health care, which is often impossible during bad weather.

“It was a great surprise, and we were all rejoicing,” Pitka said when the Nunakauyarmiut Tribe found out it was approved for funding.

Officials from all these communities are now drawing up lists of projects for this new infrastructure spending.

Howarth said a priority for Cordova is improving water and sewer systems. Two years ago, the city struggled when its water supply was low, despite being in a rainforest.

“It might become our reality as we look at climate change and how it might impact our communities,” Howarth said.

Combating and curbing climate change will be a priority for how this funding is disbursed, Buttigieg explained, and ensuring that new infrastructure is resilient enough for those new challenges.

“Every transportation decision is a climate decision,” he added.

Garrett Boyle, co-chair of the Denali Commission, is also making plans for how $75 million of this new infrastructure spending will be disbursed. He is set to hold planning meetings early next year and says $75 million is around five times larger than the committee’s recent annual budgets.

“There’s a lot of moving parts, so we’re trying to gather as much information as we can before making any final decisions,” Boyle said.

Some of his priorities include getting villages off diesel and onto renewable sources of energy, adding funding for village relocation efforts from the effects of climate change and improving, or building new, indoor village plumbing systems. Dozens of Alaska villages have inadequate or non-existent sewer systems.

Buttigieg says the department works hard to ensure “geographic equity” and that rural communities don’t miss out. Some of these projects, like the Nelson Island trail system, will only start after at least two years of planning. Buttigieg says that work is often critical as billions of dollars are spent across the U.S.

“We’re going to make sure we’re going to take the time to do it right,” he said.

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