Arctic activity, tight funding for transportation in 2014


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The coming year will likely see an ongoing discussion between the feds and the State of Alaska as to how an increasingly-active Arctic will be managed going forward.

Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, previewed a draft version of the report the state Arctic Policy Commission is set to release to the Legislature Jan. 30 at a December Commonwealth North meeting.

The 26-member commission consists of 10 legislators; representatives from the fishing, mining, oil and gas industries; officials from Arctic region communities and Alaska Native corporations; and Interior Department Special Assistant for Alaska Affairs Pat Pourchot, among others.

Giessel said one of the state commission’s top priorities is ensuring an Alaskan heads the U.S. delegation of the international Arctic Council. The U.S. will chair the eight-nation policy forum for two years beginning in 2015. Getting an Alaskan in the prominent position would be a big step towards making the state’s Arctic priorities heard, she said.

Giessel noted her view of the federal government’s view of Arctic issues by echoing a sentiment often heard from Alaska’s congressional delegation.

“Our federal government has only recently realized that we’re an Arctic nation,” she said.

The White House and Defense Department each released Arctic policy guidelines in 2013, but the documents lacked specifics in many areas. Giessel added that the 16-page Defense Department report mentions Alaska a total of five times.

While final numbers are waiting to be tallied, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in November that Northern Route shipping traffic was expected to have increased tenfold in 2013 over the previous year.

In meetings with Northern Route community leaders, Giessel said the Arctic Policy Commission heard that the state should work to establish a form of revenue sharing between development operations and villages. Assuring villages have proper infrastructure and the public safety capacity to handle more traffic needs to be addressed as well, she said.

“One of the things we heard from communities is, ‘We’ve got resource development going on but we as a community don’t benefit from that,’” Giessel said.

Throughout the commission’s roughly 10 months of work to date, the top priorities from potential Alaskan stakeholders in an Arctic future were environmental protection and economic growth, she said.

The commission worked out four guiding principles for the federal government’s Arctic policy in a two-day mid-December work session, she said. The guidelines from the draft state that Alaska envisions an Arctic that values community sustainability and thriving culture, economic development in a healthy environment, public safety and security, and transparency and inclusion in decision making.

After making its recommendations to the Legislature in later this month the Arctic Policy Commission will continue its work until it expires in 2015, unless further legislative action extends the commission’s duties.

Infrastructure

Funding might be hard to come by for a number of state transportation projects. In his budget proposal released Dec. 12, 2013, Gov. Sean Parnell cut unrestricted general fund spending 66 percent from the current capital budget.

He appropriated $55 million for the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority to continue its work on the Knik Arm Crossing. If the state can figure out a funding mechanism for the bridge, KABATA officials have said construction could begin sometime in 2015. Final right-of-way acquisitions on the Point MacKenzie side of the project should be made this year.

Near where a Knik Arm Bridge would land across from Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s Port MacKenzie Rail Extension project will continue. The 32-mile rail line to the deepwater commodity port needs about $100 million to be finished on schedule in 2016, according to borough officials. Parnell appropriated $5 million for it in his budget.

A 7 million-gallon fuel storage facility built by Central Alaska Energy LLC is set for construction at Port MacKenzie this year.

The Northern Rail Extension and bridge across the Tanana River east of Fairbanks should be completed on time later this year, Alaska Railroad Corp. officials have said.

Federally, the Army Corps of Engineers will continue work on its plan for a deepwater port in Western Alaska, according to Lorraine Cordova, project manager for the Corps.

The port would serve as a base of operations for maritime emergency response in the Arctic and potentially as a hub for offshore oil and gas exploration in the region.

After starting with 14 possible port sites along the state’s Northern and Western coasts, the Corps of Engineers has narrowed its options to a handful of locations on the Seward Peninsula. A final port design is expected to move to Washington, D.C. for approval by Corps of Engineer leadership late this year and possibly on to Congress for budgeting in early 2015.

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

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