Transportation Secretary Foxx talks Native issues in Anchorage

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx met with Alaska Natives Nov. 6 in Anchorage to discuss getting around a state with dynamic weather and limited infrastructure as transportation bills move through Congress.

The hour-long meeting, held at the First Alaskans Institute, centered on the high cost of transportation in rural Alaska and the funding programs the federal DOT has in place to help tribes develop surface transportation in their communities.

“I think the most important point is that whether folks are traveling by snowmobile or whether they’re trying to use ice highways or inland waterways or what have you, we need to pay attention to the unique transportation challenges of Alaska because they are unique and our programs need to be flexible enough to help,” Foxx said during a media briefing following the meeting.

Foxx stopped in Alaska on his way to Japan.

A day before the meeting on Native transportation issues, the House of Representatives passed the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act.

“I have consistently worked to provide Alaskans with robust investments to develop our much-needed infrastructure and transportation systems,” Rep. Don Young said in a release from his office. “The success of our state’s economy is directly reliant on our ability to safely and efficiently move our products and people, which is why I worked to secure numerous Alaskan-focused provisions — including $31 million annually for the Alaska Railroad, funds for the Alaska Marine Highway System and critical Tribal Transportation (Program) dollars — within the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act.”

The Senate passed its $277 billion version of a transportation bill, known as the DRIVE Act, in late July.

Both pieces of legislation provide six years of federal surface transportation funding, which has been funded largely through patchwork extensions since The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005, which was led at the time by Young as the chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

The transportation funding law known as MAP-21 passed in 2012 funded DOT for two years and expired at the end of the 2014 federal fiscal year.

The current bills are headed for conference committee markups.

Foxx said the at times prohibitive cost of transportation in Alaska — a major barrier to economic development in rural parts of the state — exemplifies the need for a “strong robust surface transportation bill.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan, who attended the meeting with Foxx, said the Senate’s DRIVE Act would take Alaska’s yearly highway funding appropriation from $483 million now to $585 million by 2021. It would also boost Tribal Transportation Program funding by $10 million per year over the life of the bill, from $450 million in 2015 to $510 million in 2021.

The House bill would add $210 million over six years to the Tribal Transportation Program — on par with the Senate, according to a release from Young’s office.

The Tribal Transportation Program funds surface transportation projects on Indian reservations, lands and in Alaska Native villages.

Sullivan addressed concerns about Alaska’s share of the Tribal Transportation Program at the Nov. 6 meeting. He said the funding formula was changed under MAP-21 to favor larger Tribes, while some of the very small 229 federally recognized Tribes in Alaska took a hit.

An amendment by Sullivan to provide a minimum of $75,000 to every Tribe under the program didn’t make the Senate bill, but he said another try would be had during conference committee changes.

About 140 Tribes in Alaska get less than his proposed $75,000 floor from the Tribal Transportation Program, Sullivan said.

Foxx said improving on MAP-21 in Tribal funding areas is an important issue.

“A lot of feedback I heard today (Nov. 6) was that MAP-21 caused some damage when it came to Tribal communities, stripping out some of the programs that folks had relied upon,” Foxx said.

The $31 million of formula funds for the Alaska Railroad Corp. in the House bill highlighted by Young is a $3 million annual increase over the current level, but is still down from the $36 million per year the Alaska Railroad received before MAP-21 for providing passenger service.

The House bill would also make the federal Surface Transportation Program block grant funding to allow states and local governments more flexibility in how the money is spent. The State of Alaska received $921 million in Surface Transportation funding for more than 60 programs and projects this fiscal year.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/06/2015 - 3:50pm