Corps of Engineers gains flexibility for Alaska projects


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A contractor helps install a mooring point in rural Alaska as part of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to remedy mooring deficiencies in 26 villages such as Chevak, Kwigillingak and Tuntutuliak. Under legislation expected to pass Congress, the Corps will have more flexibility to prioritize rural Alaska projects.

Photo/Courtesy/US Army Corps of Engineers

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has more leeway to develop and maintain marine infrastructure in Alaska under the latest version of legislation that governs the Corps’ authority.

Under the proposed Water Resources Reform and Development Act unveiled by a congressional conference committee May 15, ports and harbors in many of Alaska’s outlying communities would be included in the remote and subsistence harbors program that prioritized projects for funding in Hawaii and the U.S. territories but left Alaska out in the 2007 version of the bill.

Currently, Alaska Corps of Engineers Program Manager David Martinson said small, remote port and harbor projects must be at least 70 miles from another mode of transportation and a majority of goods brought into the nearest community must be consumed there, among other requirements to climb the funding ladder. Instead of having to meet a list of  “ands,” in-state development would qualify through the addition of “or Alaska” in the new bill, he said.

“That really helps with harbors that may be close to a system but are still a small or remote harbor,” Martinson said.

Port Lions on Kodiak Island, for example, could qualify for funding prioritization because it is an isolated community even though it is less than 30 miles from the City of Kodiak.

According to Sen. Mark Begich’s office, such projects would be eligible for up to $10 million in dedicated funding.

The latest bill also requires such small and remote harbor projects be prioritized based on their environmental, social, and regional benefits with large projects, not just how they fit the Corps of Engineers’ national economic development program, Martinson said.

Projects will be compared based on which is the “best buy,” he said, and a project’s local benefits will be viewed as equal to the national benefit if the legislation passes.

 “What remains to be seen is how we’re going to work through the implementation to show how all the projects are prioritized nationwide to compete for funding,” Martinson said.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act passed the House last October by a vote of 417-3, and the Senate’s version passed 83-14. The bipartisan legislation passed the House May 20 and passage is expected in the Senate before heading to the president’s desk.

Alaska’s congressional delegation has supported the bill.

“I worked hard to secure millions of dollars that will now be coming home to Alaska for our ports and harbors. (This) bipartisan progress will translate into more jobs for Alaskan’s, the elimination of bureaucratic red tape, and investment that will be an economic boost for local communities,” Begich said in a May 13 release from his office.

An amendment in the bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski would allow the Corps of Engineers to partner with non-federal public entities on a deep-draft Arctic port. Currently, the Corps of Engineers can only use its engineering and construction know-how for other federal agencies or departments.

Results from a Corps of Engineers study recommending an Arctic port plan utilizing one or more locations on the Seward Peninsula near Nome is expected in the coming months.

The language in the new bill would permit work with the State of Alaska or a local government to possibly expand on what, if any, port plan the Corps approves, Martinson said.

The Corps would not be able to partner with a private group for Arctic port development.

In the recently wrapped-up session, the Alaska Legislature increased the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority’s reach to cover Arctic infrastructure development. The state financing corporation in the past has often partnered with private business either as a financer or owner in projects, with the private sector as a builder and operator.

“As this administration seems to ‘lead from behind’ when it comes to Arctic investment and vision, my amendment to allow for partnerships with non-federal public entities could be a game-changer in terms of getting an Arctic deep-draft port closer to becoming a reality in the state,” Murkowski said in a formal statement.

She and Begich both lauded language in the bill lifting federal “navigational servitude” over uplands adjacent to the City of Seward small boat harbor, potentially opening them up for development.

Additionally, what had been a directive from Corps of Engineers leadership to trim the cost and length of study-time would become law under WRRDA. With few exceptions for large projects, the bill mandates that infrastructure development studies be completed in three years and for less than $3 million, something Arctic port study program manager Lorraine Cordova has said her team worked to accomplish.

While the bill approves roughly $10 billion in port, flood control, lock and dam and environmental across the country, it also defunds $18 billion worth of old or inactive work approved prior to the 2007 Water Resources and Development Act. Defunded projects either haven’t begun construction or have not been funded, federally or otherwise within the last six years.

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

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