State bonds, federal money could help transportation infrastructure in ‘16

Alaska’s dependence on reliable transportation networks stands out when compared to other states.

In most other places, small airports, ferries and new roads and bridges are an afterthought; here they are the subject of intense scrutiny and play a major role in many aspects of life.

The five-year Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, signed by President Barack Obama in early December, gives the state certainty for federal ferry and road infrastructure funding through 2020. In all, Alaska is scheduled to reap about $2.6 billion from the legislation, with an initial 5 percent bump in spending in the 2016 federal fiscal year.

Much of that money is for federal highway project grants that require a small state match.

In late September, Congress decided to quietly extend the Federal Aviation Administration’s funding at status quo through March 31, 2016. That will keep the agency’s Airport Improvement Program, which funds capital projects at airports across the state, in limbo.

A long-term FAA reauthorization bill doesn’t seem likely anytime soon, but never bet on Congress.

Commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, will continue to grow over the coming year.

The FAA went live with its first UAS registration system Dec. 21. The web-based system for small UAS requires everyone flying unmanned craft, including recreational users, to register their machines for a $5 fee by Feb. 19, 2016.

General registration is part of the FAA’s intense effort to standardize regulations for commercial and private UAS use as technology spurring the use of unmanned aircraft grows.

Draft commercial UAS regulations were released last February, and final guidelines should be looked for in 2016.

There might be a glimmer of state transportation spending on the horizon, despite bare-bones capital budgets this fiscal year and likely next.

Members of Gov. Bill Walker’s administration have said the governor wants to — in conjunction with the Legislature — draft a $500 million general obligation bond package to fund critical infrastructure projects. It would fund $250 million of projects each of the next two years, but voters would have to pass the bonds in the November elections.

Two incomplete projects in serious need of cash are the Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s Port MacKenzie rail extension and the Anchorage Port Modernization Project.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has already said he plans to push the state for bond help to fund the $360 million or so the city needs to rehabilitate its 54-year-old port. Some money could come from one or both of the lawsuits the city has pending against private firms and the U.S. Maritime Administration for the first failed port construction project that began way back in 2003.

The suit against the companies involved in the expansion project is set to go to trial in October 2016.

Funding delays have already added about $20 million to the final cost of the 32-mile Port MacKenzie rail extension, a spur line from Houston to the industrial port. Mat-Su Borough officials estimate finishing the project, now pegged at more than $300 million, will take another $120 million.

The local governments in charge of both projects have insisted they should not bear the funding burden for the work because the projects benefit the entire state.

A record of decision is expected soon on the Juneau road extension project from the Federal Highway Administration; however, what that decision is likely to be is anyone’s guess.

Progress on the Knik Arm bridge project will depend on approval of a federal loan for the project and other pending federal permits.

 

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

 

Updated: 
12/22/2015 - 4:05pm

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