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Road plans raise Arctic ire

Sen. Stedman calls for speedy start to SE roads

Posted: February 19, 2012 - 9:20pm  |  Updated: February 19, 2012 - 10:47pm

Juneau’s three-mile section of road leading to the resources of Cascade Point and Berners Bay is fairly small compared other potential Roads to Resources projects.

Department of Transportation and Facilities Deputy Commissioner Patrick Kemp focused his testimony to the Senate Finance Committee, Friday, on the agency’s larger roads-to-resources projects.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka Chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, asked Kemp to take a look at some of these smaller projects also, in the $10 million to $20 million range like access to Bokan Mountain’s Rare Earth minerals, the Niblack Mine on Prince of Wales Island, the Katlain Quarry and access to Cascade Point by way of Juneau’s ongoing road upgrade and extension. Stedman hoped aloud that the Dept. of Transportation commences these southeast projects in all due haste. He said he is already working with the U.S. Forest Service and has received letters from Native Corporations asking for road access to their resources.

Gov. Sean Parnell’s roads-to-resources idea is seen by those who support it as the best way to ensure Alaska’s economic future by opening alternate access to communities and timber, mineral and fish resources. The opposition says the idea just shifts taxpayer dollars to private corporations and then seals off once-public land behind the wall of private ownership.

The slogan was used by Parnell in 2009 to describe a road off the Dalton Highway to Umiat oil field and Gubik gas complex. Parnell said the road would speed production of proven and prospective reserves.

The $200- to $300-million road and bridge project could entice producers to tap the estimated 200 million to 300 million barrels of high-quality oil and 31 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Kemp said the DOT expects a Record of Decision on the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement by mid-2013 or later.

A year ago, Sen. Donny Olson asked Kemp, who had been on the job for a month, if he knew of any opposition to the Umiat Road. Kemp had said at the time that he didn’t know of any.

“We just completed a scoping report,” Kemp said. “I know there is certainly opposition to the project.”

“I have not heard more opposition to any road to anywhere in my 12 years of being down here on this finance committee,” Olson said.

Of all the development projects going on in Olson’s district, the Umiat Road is the only project his constituents have openly opposed, Olson said. Olson asked Kemp to consider the alternative of the Meltwater Road.

Kemp said the opposition should allow the project to continue in the regulatory process, because as of yet the department does not have a full picture of the project.

“A lot of people are voicing opposition before we have a full set of facts in place,” Kemp said. “We have to follow the process, or we’d like to follow the process.”

Sen. Jonny Ellis asked why the state’s taxpayers should pay for roads that will go predominantly to private gain.

Kemp used the example of building ice roads instead of permanent gravel. Ice roads may cost a developer $10 million a year to build and maintain. The state covers up to 40 percent of this as tax credits. So the state is paying either way.

“An all-gravel road with just state funds only, eventually we would recoup the costs, it is a net no-loss to the state,” Kemp said.

The Tanana Access road would provide access to known mineral developments in the Rough Top Mountain mineral belt and access for the Tanana community to the state highway system.

Hoffman said the road is generating opposition among his constituents.

“If there is vast opposition, why proceed?” Hoffman asked.

Kemp replied that the state plans to determine land ownership along the route, which should alleviate some of the concerns.

“Do this before we invest lots of money,” Stedman advised.

The Klondike Industrial Use Highway would funnel new 200-ton ore movers from B.C.’s Selwyn mining project through Skagway, where they would offload bulk mineral cargo bound for China. The construction project would strengthen pavement and beef up bridges that currently would buckle under the new, larger ore movers, Kemp said. The toll road hasn’t changed its pricing since the 1980s. Kemp said DOT is considering a toll change.

Olson asked if DOT is going to come back to the Legislature in a year or two to ask for more money for the Umiat Road before even starting construction. Kemp said the $10 million is expected to last through a process he admitted could take 13 years or more.

Stedman reminded his fellow senators about the decades-long Juneau Access Road battle, saying “13 years might be optimistic.”

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