Secretary Chao announces infrastructure changes for Alaska

Transportation Secretary Eilane Chao speaking with Senator Dan Sullivan after a transportation summit in Anchorage (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)

During a visit from the country’s head of transportation, Alaskans got news that one of the most trafficked roads in the state is a step closer to improvements that have been 40 years in the making.

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Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao spent two days in Alaska, touring Prudhoe Bay with Senator Lisa Murkowski- and meeting with infrastructure and business leaders from around the state. After a summit on transportation issues Thursday hosted by Senator Dan Sullivan, Chao spoke with reporters on the top floor of an Anchorage hotel. She announced news about an agreement between the Transportation Department and other federal agencies that moves closer a decision on re-routing a 15-mile section of the Sterling Highway through the Kenai Peninsula, often called the Cooper Landing Bypass project.

“We are one big step closer to moving ahead with this project,” Chao said.

The agreement reached allows for a land exchange that was holding up federal agencies as they seek to pick an alternative route for the highway. The governor’s office supports the move, and pointed out in a press release Thursday evening that the Sterling Highway project has “currently the longest running federally led Environmental Impact Statement in the country,” dating back to 1975.

But Chao had bigger news regarding federal review processes. Alaska is now the sixth state to “wave sovereign immunity,” allowing the State of Alaska to become the lead agency overseeing projects when it reaches a Memorandum Of Understanding, or MOU, with the Transportation Department on federal highway projects.

“Basically it gives the states much greater authority and responsibility,” Chao explained. “The state gets to have a whole holistic point of view about what needs to be done, rather than have all these different agencies from throughout the government come in throughout the process.”

“It’s very disjointed, and thus adds to the cost of project delays and delivery,” Chao added.

Few specifics were offered of projects in Alaska the change stands to affect. Chao and the state’s Commissioner for Transportation, Marc Luiken, both say the new measure will not change the standards for environmental protection.

Chao and Sullivan also spoke of a large federal infrastructure proposal being developed by the Trump administration that could designate about a quarter of the money for rural states. But the measure depends on first getting through a dense congressional calendar that includes debt ceiling negotiations and tax reform before the House and Senate take up an infrastructure bill.

Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has had a reportedly contentious relationship of late with President Trump. At the end of questions, a television reporter with KTUU asked whether that feud is having an impact on the Transportation Department’s agenda. Chao said only, “Hey, I’m here to talk about infrastructure.”

The state’s MOU with federal partners on the Cooper Landing Bypass will be filed Friday, according to Luiken.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah