Knowles says Steese Highway will stay open

Posted: Thursday, July 18, 2002

CIRCLE (AP) -- The Steese Highway will remain open this winter after all.

Gov. Tony Knowles, at the end of a trip to visit the affected communities of Central, Circle, and Circle Hot Springs, announced that he will order the Department of Transportation to fund winter maintenance on both the road and the Circle Airport and let the Legislature next year deal with the added expense in a supplemental budget.

Knowles told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that his trip up the Steese on Wednesday was only supposed to be for gathering information. But he said arguments by residents of Central and Circle convinced him closing the road would be ''devastating.''

More than 50 Central residents and 30 from Circle told Knowles that the closure would decimate the infrastructures of each community, resulting in the potential loss of telephones and utilities, in closed businesses and at least one closed school, and in residents having dramatically limited access to medical services.

''If you close the road, you are pronouncing a death sentence on the village, and you're going to kill people that live here,'' said Central resident Chris Kriendler. ''Everything that we need to live, you are cutting us off from.''

Knowles said much of what residents told him had been reflected in reports on the potential closure, but he told the crowd in Circle that he needed to make the trip to gauge the human impact.

''You've got to look somebody in the eye,'' he said. ''Unless I hear about it, I won't really understand, face to face, what it means.''

As Knowles and Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, D-Rampart, rode a school bus from Circle Hot Springs to Central, schoolteacher and principal Marcy Jasper said the vehicle was often used for field trips to Fairbanks.

''We could not be able to go for cost of air fare,'' she said.

The Central meeting was held in a classroom of the Far North School, which would likely have had to close due to lack of students if the Steese had shut down for the winter.

Residents of Circle held their meeting inside the village's half-completed tourist lodge. As was repeatedly stressed to Knowles, the lodge was intended to make much of its money off winter tourism.

''Having it in that building, I thought, was a genius stroke,'' Knowles said.

Knowles announced his decision at the end of the Circle meeting, then communicated it back to Central by phone. He will order the DOT to reinstate $225,000 to keep the Steese open in the winter and another $14,400 to keep the Circle airport open.

''If you believe in Alaska, then you don't start cutting communities off and tossing them overboard,'' he said.

The issue of the Steese closure surfaced as the Legislature worked on the state operating budget. The Republican-let House and Senate cut requests from several departments, including Transportation.

Department officials issued a list of services that they said would have to be curtailed if the smaller amount were approved, including winter maintenance of the Steese.

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