The State of Alaska will benefit greatly from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress in 2021. Over the next five years Alaska is expected to receive roughly $3.5 billion in highway funding and $225 million to address 140 “structurally deficient” bridges. When addressing Alaska’s needs for highways and bridges, the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOTPF) considers both existing and future needs and creates a Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) as part of the federal formula cost sharing. The Legislature funds the state’s cost share and even though the DOTPF establishes the Governor’s priorities in the STIP, the Legislature can influence which projects are funded.
The three DOTPF divisions (Northern, Central, and Southcoast) each submit projects to be included in the STIP. Alaska has a lot of project requirements and while the amount of money available from the Infrastructure Act is large, the DOTPF has to set priorities. The Department considers long-term transportation growth, infrastructure replacement, cost vs. benefit of the project, and finally how individual legislators want to prioritize projects for their districts. It’s a big pot of money but with many desires it’s clear not everything will be funded.
Alaska statewide is expected to have $225 million for “deficient bridge replacement” and the Northern Region of DOTPF has placed their priority on replacing five bridges between Tok and Fox. They are: the three long-span truss bridges between Delta Junction and Tok, the northbound lane of the Chena Flood crossing, and the Steese Highway undercrossing at Mile 5. The DOTPF intends to accelerate the replacements of these bridges using a Fast Track Bridge Construction Manager/General Contractor (CMGC) program which bypasses the normal agency design, public input, and competitive bidding process. There are 140 structurally deficient bridges in Alaska, so why are these five bridges the most critical to the DOTPF? The answer lies in the demand from one mining company in Alaska.
Kinross Alaska intends to begin hauling ore in trucks weighing 165,000 lbs. from their Manh Choh Mine at Tetlin to their processing plant at Fort Knox. Even though these loads may be legal based on a calculated weight formula, the truck weight would exceed the load rating on 17 of the existing bridges on the route and five of those bridges could be damaged or fail with intense use. To fix the problem, the DOTPF is opting to allocate and spend a major portion of the STIP funds just to accommodate the Kinross ore haul. The two bridges near Fairbanks are well built and can handle safely the existing traffic for many years to come. The three long-span bridges on the Alcan are old and will need to be replaced eventually but with limited use, restrictive weights, and careful maintenance, they can still serve Alaska for years until they are replaced in a cost effective manner.
If allowed to proceed, the Fast Track CMGC process will divert a majority of the state’s bridge funds toward benefiting a single user, Kinross Alaska. The accelerated process will be expensive with some independent estimators putting the total cost near $350 million, a staggering number. Construction on the two Fairbanks bridges will disrupt commuter traffic and commerce. If Kinross is permitted to use the three bridges rated insufficient on the Alcan, there is a risk of failure causing an interruption of all traffic in that direction, or cause a significant expense by the State in monitoring and maintaining these bridges. For all this effort and expense by the state, Kinross will pay Alaska nothing beyond their $.08 per gallon fuel tax and $331/truck license fee. This is hardly the best use of the Alaska’s infrastructure funds and what about other critical infrastructure needs that benefit all Alaskans?
Resource development is an important and critical part of Alaska’s future; but its development can’t come at the expense of its citizens or the destruction of existing infrastructure. The State of Alaska needs to overhaul the laws governing truck size and weight to match the capacity of our highways and bridges. Moreover, Kinross has alternatives for processing which do not require hauling the ore on our essential public highways and in doing so, Kinross can continue to provide jobs, economic benefit, and profit from mining. The State of Alaska, however, is under no obligation to subsidize one company’s expansion project.
[This Community Perspective by Bill Ward ran in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on March 24, 2023. It is reprinted with his permission.]