Stevens intends to keep federal spigot open

Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens fully intends to keep the federal dollars flowing to Alaska in 2002. As ranking minority member -- and former chairman -- of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he has become legendary in his ability to fund Alaska projects.

"Defense spending in Alaska was about $1 billion last year," Stevens told the Journal in a telephone interview. "It should be about the same this year."

In addition to operating Alaska’s military bases, those funds include about $300 million per year in construction projects funneled through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The biggest construction project in Alaska for 2002, the $215 million replacement for Bassett Army Hospital at Fort Wainwright, is one of dozens funded via the Corps.

This year, Stevens said he will try to put funding for a causeway to Fire Island in the Corps budget. The island, just offshore from Stevens’ namesake airport in Anchorage, has been eyed as the site of a possible cargo-only airport in the past.

Stevens said Alaska has been getting about $350 million per year for highway construction, and he’s looking to increase that amount. The act, which authorizes federal spending on highways, is being rewritten this year, and Stevens sees this as a unique opportunity for Alaska.

The reason: Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the lead committee on the highway funding bill.

"This is a big year for Don Young," Stevens said.

While highway funding is not handled on the Senate side in Stevens’ committee -- it goes to the Public Works Committee -- Stevens was confident he could influence the Senate version of the bill.

"Don (Young) and I have a good synergy going between our committees on transportation projects," Stevens said.

What does Stevens want included in the highway bill? Bridges. As many bridges as he can get, including the Knik Arm Crossing, a bridge to the Ketchikan Airport on Gravina Island, and a new bridge linking Juneau and Douglas Island.

"How many we’ll get, we don’t know," Stevens said.

Stevens said he plans to continue providing the Alaska Railroad with $50 million per year to keep straightening its track.

He will also push for continued funding of the Denali Commission, which saw its budget increase to $96 million last year from $65 million in 2000. The commission has been funding a series of targeted projects in rural Alaska, including building health clinics, replacing leaking fuel tanks, and installing water and sewer systems in villages.

"We’re 60 percent there" in eliminating honey buckets, Stevens said.

The commission also has funding to train rural residents to build its Bush projects.

"The No. 1 problem we’re trying to tackle is unemployment," Stevens said. "These construction projects help that."

Another rural priority for the senator is installing landing lights at every village runway. He said he got $11 million for the project last year and is aiming for $17 million this year to finish it.

Stevens plans to again tackle the thorny issue of bypass mail, a program that subsidizes mail shipments to the Bush and is designed to encourage air carriers to serve small villages. However, the U.S. Postal Service is losing more than $100 million a year to run the program, and Stevens said it must be streamlined for it to survive.

"The Postal Service demanded we revamp it or it would ask Congress to abandon it," Stevens said.

Stevens said bypass mail and a second subsidy program, Essential Air Service, are vital to Alaska’s smaller communities.

"If that system collapses, the rural economy would collapse," Stevens said. "And it would have a large impact on Anchorage suppliers."

Stevens sounded guardedly optimistic about the prospect of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploratory drilling for oil. The Republican-controlled House approved the measure last year, but it faces tougher sledding in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Stevens said opening ANWR is still included in the energy bill.

"We have the votes to pass it, but not the votes to override a filibuster," Stevens said. A filibuster is a delaying tactic Democrats have promised to use to block ANWR drilling; it requires 60 votes to stop it.

Stevens said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have helped the prospects for passage of the ANWR provision.

"Since Sept. 11, there’s been a total swing around in public opinion in every poll I’ve seen, except those controlled by the major environmental organizations," Stevens said. "They show the public supporting ANWR. People are starting to wonder how stable are our energy supplies."

Stevens said that if an ANWR drilling provision is passed, it would be litigated for years. He said a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope faces far less opposition. He said he’s working on a provision in the tax laws that would encourage construction of such a pipeline.

The plan would allow the owners of a gas pipeline to pay reduced taxes in years when gas prices are low, and then pay the government back later, when prices are higher.

"We’re working on a formula now," Stevens said.

The other big project in the wings is a National Missile Defense System. The decision by President Bush to pull the nation out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty clears the way for further testing of the system this year, with construction of facilities to launch five missiles at Fort Greely and using the launch pad at Kodiak for other tests. Stevens said all necessary funds for those projects have been appropriated and can be spent immediately.

Stevens said an X-band radar site at Shemya Island in the Aleutians is still part of the planned system. An aide to the senator said the radar won’t be built until the operational version of the system is deployed, in 2005 to 2006. At that time, the facility at Fort Greely would be expanded to accommodate 100 missiles, under current plans.

The aide said a radar site in Hawaii is under consideration for a naval version of the missile defense system, but is not currently in the budget.

Stevens is also continuing to keep an eye on the fishing industry in Alaska. He’s clearly annoyed at the Agriculture Department’s decision to prohibit Alaskans from labeling their fish as organic.

"The farm bill has not passed," Stevens said. "We may have to do it by law."

01/21/2002 - 8:00pm