Legislators get update on fixes for $5B transportation plan rejected by feds

a legislative hearing
Senate Finance Committee Co-Chair Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, listens to testimony from Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner Ryan Anderson on Feb. 28, 2024. (Eric Stone/Alaska Public Media)

After federal authorities rejected Alaska’s four-year statewide highway project funding plan earlier this month, the state Department of Transportation is racing to submit revisions by Friday. State officials say they’ve removed or changed high-expense projects in the process, although the exact changes are not yet public.

On Feb. 9, federal agencies responsible for approving the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program or STIP rejected the proposal, which includes more than $5 billion in highway projects across Alaska. The department now has until March 1 to fix the five most serious issues with the plan before resubmitting, and a longer timeline to revise secondary issues.

In a Senate Finance Committee meeting Wednesday morning, Transportation Commissioner Ryan Anderson updated lawmakers on the revision.

Some senators expressed worry about what will happen to the state’s construction industry and anticipated highway projects if the STIP is not approved, or only conditionally approved. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat, pointed out Alaska’s unique position.

“It’s my understanding that we’re the only state that’s been asked for a resubmittal, and I think that’s a drastic step by the federal government,” Hoffman said.

Anderson said some projects were removed from the plan. He wasn’t able to answer questions in committee about what exactly has been removed from the STIP for the revision, and said those changes were still ongoing as of Wednesday morning.

But the Cooper Landing Bypass on the Central Kenai Peninsula, one of the department’s most expensive capital projects, did come up. Although a critical aspect of that project, the Juneau Creek Bridge, has already been funded and is underway, Anderson told Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman in an exchange that future segments of that project will no longer be in the STIP.

a road
Work on the Cooper Landing Bypass, west of Juneau Creek, in September 2023. (Riley Board/KDLL)

“At this point in the STIP, you won’t see any planned expenditures — obligations, I should say — for Cooper Landing between 2024 and 2027,” Anderson said.

He said other projects that will be pulled from the plan include work on the Parks, Richardson, Sterling and Seward Highways, although in most cases, they’ll just be broken up into different segments, not removed entirely.

“So you will see where the projects are still in there, but there’s one phase of it, versus the whole thing,” he said.

A DOT spokesperson said the department will publicly release the full list of removed projects once the revised STIP is finalized, within a few days.

After the March 1 deadline, Anderson said, the department will focus on second-tier issues over the next six months, including more coordination with local transportation groups in Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Mat-Su.

“I mean yeah, we’re gonna get there,” he said. “It’s gonna take some resources.”

Anderson described difficulties with moving to a digital public comment system for the STIP, the challenges of high inflation and new rules about what should and shouldn’t be listed in the plan. He said the state is committed to not ending up in this situation again, and is looking at a “rolling STIP” model employed by other states, which would allow the department to perpetually update its STIP rather than create a new one every four year.

Anderson described the department’s progress on the revision as being at 90%, in advance of the Friday deadline for resubmission.

After DOT submits its revised STIP, federal transportation officials have 30 days to approve or respond to it.

Previous articleProposal to define a fetus as a person in Alaska’s criminal code faces pushback
Next articleWith massive federal funding, Western Alaska fiber optic projects prepare for rollout