ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Governor-elect Frank Murkowski campaigned on a theme of building roads to rural Alaska, but he may see his campaign pledge become real sooner than he thought.
Elements of a rural road network that could someday connect the Seward Peninsula in Western Alaska and even North Slope villages to the state's main highway network are already in the planning stages at the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
The initiative for new road links is coming from rural villagers who in the past have strongly opposed surface transportation connections with the state's larger cities, said Mike McKinnon, a transportation department senior planner.
''In the last three years there's been a fundamental shift in the thinking of people in many rural communities,'' McKinnon told the Alaska Miners Association annual convention in Anchorage Nov. 7.
''Through the course of extensive village meetings, people now realize many small communities may not be sustainable unless transportation costs can be reduced, particularly for fuel,'' McKinnon said.
Marvin Yoder, city manager of Galena, on the Yukon River, said the push for rural roads is coming from people in the villages, not the state.
''It came up here after we started some regional economic development meetings a year and a half ago. We were meeting with people from Kaltag, Ruby, Huslia and Koyukuk,'' Yoder said.
''Roads were not on our agenda at first. It was a grass-roots kind of thing, coming from people in the communities,'' he said.
Larry Bredeman, transportation director for Tanana Chiefs Conferences in Fairbanks, said, ''Five or six years ago if you'd said 'roads' in villages along the Yukon they would have told you to get out of town.''
Concerns over the regional economy have now caused a change. ''There's no fishing and no way to make a living,'' Bredeman said.
In Nuiqsut, a North Slope village on the Colville River west of the North Slope oil fields, McKinnon said villagers previously opposed a road link with the Dalton Highway, which connects the oilfields to the Interior Alaska highway system.
But now some Nuiqsut residents favor a road link, McKinnon said. The department has a plan for a new road linking the village with the Dalton, he said.
The state transportation agency is developing regional transportation plans for different parts of the state. The meetings in the rural communities are a part of that.
One idea being discussed with villages along the Yukon River is a ''Yukon Highway'' that could be built in segments. Eventually the road would link Manley Hot Springs, now the terminus of the Elliot Highway, with Kaltag, on the lower Yukon River.
Tanana, a small community on the Yukon, wants a road connection with the Elliot Highway, 50 miles east of Tanana, McKinnon said.
Galena, a community downriver from Tanana, is interested in a road link with nearby river villages, such as Ruby, Nulato and Kaltag, he said.
And in Kaltag, people are interested in building a road along the historic trail that connects the village with Unalakleet on the Norton Sound coast. This is a route taken each year by mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
An alternative to the Kaltag-Unalakleet route is a road across the Nulato hills, to connect Nulato with the existing highway east from Nome to Council on the Seward Peninsula, McKinnon said.
State highway engineers are now looking at the possibilities of a road across the Nulato hills, he said.
Unalakleet, for its part, wants a connection with Shaktoolik and St. Michael, which has an excellent port site, McKinnon said.
A regional port is also being considered in Holy Cross, a village down the Yukon from Kaltag where ocean-going barges could land fuel for trans-shipment upriver, he said.
If these pieces are put in place, a connection with the existing road from Nome east to Council could be added eventually, along with a road to connect Tanana with Galena. At that point, vehicles could be driven from Fairbanks to Nome.
Several road links in Northwest Alaska are now being discussed in communities there, McKinnon said. A road connecting Kobuk, Ambler and Shungnak east of Kotzebue in the Kobuk River valley could be a part of the new Northwest Transportation Plan.
Noatak, north of Kotzebue, could be designated as a place for a new regional airport to support the Red Dog lead/zinc mine, Mc-Kinnon said.
If that happens, a road built from the community to the mine would give Noatak villagers access to the existing 57-mile road from the mine to the Chukchi Sea coast.
Two things have influenced at least some rural residents to change their mind about surface links with small villages, McKinnon said.
One is that passenger air fares to rural villages have risen sharply in recent years as an indirect effect of increased competition for bypass mail by small air carriers. Many can no longer carry passengers because of a loss of insurance coverage.
A second problem is the difficulty of delivering fuel to many smaller villages by barge, and the high costs of flying fuel in. If fuel can be trucked from a community where a large fuel barge can be unloaded, costs will be reduced, McKinnon said.
Not all rural communities want roads and there are places where they are so costly as to be impractical, he said.
In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta there are some places where villages are within two or three miles of each other. Road links to connect these communities so they could share one school, one health clinic and one utility and fuel storage facility seemed logical, McKinnon said.
However, villagers there didn't want the road links, and in any event poor soils and extensive wetlands would make them very expensive, he said.
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