Interior lawmakers look for way to keep Steese open

Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Interior lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said Monday the Steese Highway will stay open this winter. They're not sure how, but they said they'd find the money.

Rep. Jeannette James, R-North Pole, called a press conference to say legislators are piecing together a solution that she hopes can be made public in the next week.

Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, said the time for action is short. He spoke while holding a petition containing more than 700 signatures in one hand and a letter he sent to Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe Perkins last week in the other.

''We can't wait for the first snowflake,'' Wilken said. ''We need to have the administration at the table to talk about some middle ground here.''

Maintenance on the gravel portion of the 162-mile road is scheduled to end at Mile 44 sometime in September and is the result of a $2.7 million cut to the DOT's northern region. It costs about $225,000 to maintain the Steese Highway during the winter.

Residents of Central, Circle and Arctic Circle Hot Springs have bombarded legislators and the governor's office with letters and e-mails protesting the closure. Several businesses, including power and fuel companies in Central and Circle, would be forced to shut down if the road is closed because they could not store enough fuel to get through the winter.

About 200 people make their homes in the foothills of the Crazy Mountains north of Fairbanks. Many say they would have to move into town if the road is not kept open.

Several Interior legislators said they did not realize how the three communities at the end of the road would be affected by cuts the Legislature had ordered to the DOT budget.

At the same time, they said, it's time for Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles and the Department of Transportation to stop blaming the GOP-led Alaska Legislature for the impending closure and start looking for solutions to keep the road open.

''My goal is to not close the Steese Highway, no matter what it takes,'' James said. ''I believe we can find the money for this.

''If we don't have $200,000 in some kind of contingency fund someplace, I'm really worried about DOT.''

The Steese Highway closure is on Gov. Knowles' agenda, said spokesman Bob King.

''We're looking at what options may be available,'' he said.

King stopped short of accepting any administrative blame for the closure. The DOT told the Legislature the Steese Highway would be closed if the budget was cut, he said.

Rep. John Davies, D-Fairbanks, Rep. Hugh Fate, R-North Pole, and Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, also attended the meeting.

Davies said he does not believe the department is shutting down the Steese Highway to squeeze more money from the Legislature.

''This is one small example that we are getting to the bottom of the barrel and the priorities you have to make reducing the budget are going to hurt people,'' Davies said. ''The important thing is we find a way to keep the road open.''



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