Finding a better route: 'Fix it first' policy a more sensible plan for state

Voices Of The State

Posted: Monday, September 10, 2007

Following the Minneapolis bridge collapse on Aug. 1, which killed nine and injured dozens, it's natural to wonder about the integrity of Alaska's bridges and other infrastructure. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2005 report card on Alaska, the state's transportation infrastructure is not in good shape: 30 percent of Alaska's bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete and 33 percent of the state's major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

ASCE notes that bad roads in Alaska cost motorists $102 million each year in extra repair and operating costs, or $212 each year per driver.

The Palin Administration faces an expensive but important task to maintain and preserve the state's existing transportation infrastructure at a time of decreasing federal funding. Alaska currently relies on federal funding for transportation infrastructure more than any other state with 70 percent of this year's $810 million capital budget for transportation coming from federal dollars.

In a May 2007 letter to Alaskans interested in statewide transportation projects, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT) Commissioner Leo von Scheben stated the largest federal source of road money in Alaska the Highway Trust Fund likely will be reduced by as much as 25 percent beginning in 2009.

The expected decline in federal funding only will make a bad situation in Alaska worse. Prospects for a modest federal gas tax increase to fund bridge and road maintenance as a result of the Minneapolis bridge collapse are uncertain at best.

It's not enough to fund maintenance of existing transportation infrastructure in Alaska, however. The state also needs to spend money to upgrade roads and intersections that have high crash rates, such as the Kalifornsky Beach Road and Sterling Highway intersection in Kasilof and the Halbouty Road and Kenai Spur Highway intersection in Nikiski.

Additionally, Alaska needs to fix road culverts that fail to allow fish passage, especially in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, where more salmon spawning means more commercial and sportfishing revenue (for example, Coal Creek a tributary of the Kasilof River needs a culvert replacement that DOT says it cannot afford). Unfortunately, DOT budget limitations constrain the number of safety and fish-wildlife habitat upgrades currently possible.

Given the high costs of maintenance, infrastructure preservation and safety and fish-wildlife upgrades, it's obvious the state should carefully scrutinize the need and cost numbers for new transportation projects. New mega-projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars, such as the Gravina Bridge near Ketchikan (more than $200 million; DOT still has this project on its books), the Juneau Road and ferry project (more than $300 million, not including a cost update addressing challenging road design needs discovered last summer) and the Knik Arm Bridge (more than $1 billion, including Phases 1 and 2, some of which will be covered by private investors) require extra scrutiny.

These controversial projects, all of questionable benefit and potentially subject to large cost overruns, are so expensive that the rest of the state's transportation infrastructure undoubtedly will suffer if any of them go forward.

As an engineer, I can understand why DOT engineers like to build new transportation projects, since new projects present interesting design and construction challenges.

Nevertheless, as director of an organization that promotes sensible transportation systems in Alaska, it's clear to me the best policy for the state right now is to "fix it first" rather than to build expensive, new, controversial projects at a time of decreasing federal funding and no state revenue plan for transportation in place.

Without a "fix it first" policy, there is a chance that one or more state bridges could suffer the fate of the Minneapolis bridge in future years. Building new, nonessential yet costly bridge and road mega-projects is not a wise use of Alaska's limited and declining transportation dollars.

Lois N. Epstein is the engineer and director for the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project.

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