This session, Young's priority is transportation

If Rep. Don Young is to leave a legacy of his liking, it may well be traced to the upcoming second session of the 107th Congress.

While vowing to preserve and protect Social Security, provide tax relief to Americans, balance the budget and strengthen the military, the 15-term Republican congressman’s top priority this year -- and perhaps the most important of his entire political career -- will be the rewriting of legislation that provides billions of federal dollars for planning and building transportation projects in the United States.

As the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the frank-speaking former school teacher and river boat captain from Fort Yukon will be the principal architect in crafting the nation’s transportation program during the next several years.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, more commonly known as TEA-21, expires at the end of the year.

Alaska stands to win big in the new legislation, with its sole congressman promising major upgrades to the state’s entire transportation infrastructure, including airports, marine highways, railroad, harbors, roads, bike paths and bridges.

Young said he joined the transportation committee in 1995 to advance Alaska’s transportation agenda. And he not so quietly claims to have been key in crafting the TEA-21 legislation that first became law in 1998.

Young’s past influence on the landmark legislation is hard to argue: Alaska gets $6 for every dollar it contributes from gasoline taxes, about three times what the next closest state, Wyoming, receives.

That ratio is glaringly conspicuous with Young’s colleagues in Congress, with some saying Alaska is getting an unfair cut of transportation money. Young argues that Alaska’s transportation needs are greater than other states, since it has historically lagged behind on project funding, with about $8 billion needed to bring the state’s roads and transportation facilities to an acceptable level.

When the new TEA-21 legislation is introduced next January, Young says he will keep at least the current funding formula, which funnels some $320 million into the state annually for transportation projects.

Will he be successful?

"Absolutely. I’ll be very successful, but it won’t be easy," Young told the Journal Jan. 7 in Anchorage. "I’ll be in combat formation.’’

While chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Young said he’ll fight hard for additional money for such things as railroad, airport and runway upgrades across the state. He’ll also find funding for a proposed multimillion dollar expansion at the Port of Anchorage, which serves 80 percent of Alaska.

"We have to look to the future and where we will be 50 years from now," Young said.

He’s also pledging progress on bridges in Anchorage, Ketchikan and Juneau, projects that have been talked about for decades but have been considered nearly impossible to finance.

That outlook was before Young became chairman on the powerful transportation committee last year.

"My goal is to get them,’’ Young said of the bridges. "These are not pie-in-the-sky projects, but in this business, you don’t always get things in one bite."

Young, with the help of Sens. Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski, has obtained $20 million in federal money to build a bridge from the Ketchikan airport to town, a trip that now requires a ferry ride.

In the transportation budget for 2002 is $2.4 million to begin efforts to build a bridge from Juneau over Gastineau Channel to Douglas Island.

He also aims to garner up to $2 million this year to pay for design and permitting of a Knik Arm crossing already dubbed by some people the "Don Young Causeway.’’

Young said he is committed to finding funds "within seven years" for the link between Anchorage and Point MacKenzie, a crossing that has a price tag of more than $1 billion, according to some estimates.

Young is seen by the highway and transportation construction industry as a champion not only in Alaska but nationwide, and has won allies for pushing transportation projects and protecting TEA-21 gas tax revenues from being used by politicians for pet projects that are not transportation related.

It is perhaps those allies and others whom Young hopes would support him as Speaker of the House, a position he said he’d like to hold after his six-year tenure as chairman of the transportation committee ends in 2007.

01/21/2002 - 8:00pm