A spokesperson for Gov.-elect Frank Murkowski said Friday the new administration, which takes power Monday, would consider funding to reopen the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities' maintenance depot at Ninilchik.
That facility was closed earlier this year in response to budget cuts made by the Legislature, a move that drew protest from residents and local government officials. Now, severe flooding and the havoc it has wrought on Kenai Peninsula roads have led to renewed efforts to convince state officials to reopen the maintenance station.
The impediment is money.
Friday, however, John Manly, spokesperson for the Murkowski transition team, said the governor and his staff would weigh supplemental appropriations to allow the station to be reopened.
"It is clearly one we will have to take a look at," Manly said.
If money is approved for the supplemental budget, he added, it would have to come from the Constitutional Budget Reserve. Manly said the new administration is likely to see requests for supplemental funding from several departments.
Following closure of the Ninilchik station last summer, there were calls by peninsula lawmakers, residents and candidates for office to reconsider the cost-saving move. The late fall storms added weight to those arguments in the eyes of many.
On Nov. 5, Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, wrote to DOT Commissioner Joe Perkins, urging him to reconsider the maintenance station closure and to request the necessary funds through the supplemental budget.
"If there ever was a time to justify a reopening of the Ninilchik station and pay for it out of the supplemental budget, it is now," Scalzi said, adding he doubted there would be any opposition from the Legislature. "Last year, DOT expenditures were approved unanimously in the supplemental along with three other departments due to unexpected occurrences."
At its last meeting, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly approved a resolution offered by Milli Martin of the South Peninsula District also urging DOT to reopen the Ninilchik station. The floods, she said, demonstrated the station's importance.
The resolution said, "... had the station been open, the bridge over Deep Creek would probably have been closed sooner, preventing the accidents that occurred because the road remained open while being undercut by the flood."
It also noted that reductions to the maintenance budget now mean road crews must come from Soldotna or Homer to make repairs or clear ice and snow in the Ninilchik area, adding time and cost to the operations. Delays in clearing the road of snow could endanger motorists, including school children on buses, the resolution said.
"Over 70 miles of state highway stretch between Homer and Soldotna, which provide the only road connection to the state road system for approximately 13,562 people living south of Soldotna," Martin said in a memo to the assembly Nov. 7.
Murkowski should be aware of the problem, said Rep. Mike Chenault, whose new House District 34 includes Ninilchik. He said he mentioned the Ninilchik station closure to the new governor during the gubernatorial campaign. Chenault said he expects the Legislature to find the money to reopen the station.
"I don't think there will be much opposition. Once the new administration gets in on Dec. 2, we will be talking with them, and we will see what we can do to have them agree with us that it needs to be open," Chenault said. "We need to get that back open and take care of people in Ninilchik and south to Homer. We'll figure a way to get it open."
As bad as the flooding has been, residents of the lower peninsula have been fortunate in avoiding heavy snow so far. They might have faced serious delays in snowplowing, Chenault said.
Frank Richards, state maintenance and operations engineer with the DOT in Juneau, said to secure the necessary funds, the commissioner would have to forward a request to the Office of Management and Budget. Ultimately, it would be up to Murkowski to decide if it should be included in the supplemental budget request.
Richards said the department rehired people laid off from Ninilchik and Homer, and crews were brought in from Anchorage and Palmer to handle the flood emergency. In addition, the state also hired private contractors to help repair and reopen the roadways, he said.
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