After revisions Federal Highway Administration approves most of Alaska’s transportation plan

a truck
A semi-truck on the Dalton Highway. (Photo by Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management)

Federal officials on Wednesday approved most of Alaska’s four-year statewide transportation improvement program, or STIP, but not before excluding six projects from among the hundreds planned for coming years.

The partial approval brought a sense of relief to state legislators in the Capitol on Wednesday. It came after the agency, in an extraordinary action, rejected the state’s first submission, citing 24 pages of flaws with the $5.6 billion plan. 

The STIP is required by the federal government as a precondition for receiving the federal grants that pay for most of Alaska’s budget for roads, trails, bridges and tunnels. Had the plan been fully rejected a second time, the refusal would have endangered parts of the summer construction season, with economic ripple effects across Alaska.

Among the six items excluded this week were $68.7 million earmarked for repairs to the Port of Alaska in Anchorage and the state’s plan to use $19.8 million in existing ferry ticket sales to match federal grants for ferry-related projects. An official with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said both items should still be funded, albeit in ways outside the STIP.

The six exclusions identified by the Federal Highway Administration:

  • $500,000 for planning to improve passenger rail service to places between Fairbanks and Seward, including Anchorage, Whittier, Wasilla, Talkeetna, Denali National Park and Nenana;
  • $7.1 million to replace a bridge on Aurora Drive in Fairbanks over Noyes Slough; 
  • $68.7 million for part of the Port of Alaska project in Anchorage;
  • $407,284 for a program intended to plan for disaster recovery;
  • The state’s plan to use $19.8 million in existing ferry ticket sales to match federal grants for ferry-related projects;
  • and $23.2 million for bridge and tunnel inspections.

In a letter dated Wednesday, FHWA division administrator Sandra Garcia-Aline said the agency appreciated its work with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities over the past month but outlined some continued problems that could be addressed and fixed through amendments to the transportation plan.

Three projects — the railroad plan, Fairbanks bridge and Port of Alaska work — need to be amended into local planning office documents.

Shannon McCarthy, director of communications for the state DOT, said the agency “mistakenly put the (Port of Alaska work) into the STIP.” Money for the project was requested by municipal officials and should have been listed in a local transportation improvement projects list, not the statewide list. 

The Fairbanks bridge work has already been done, McCarthy said, but the state listed it incorrectly in the STIP.

When it comes to ferry funding, McCarthy said the state is pursuing a different approval method outside the STIP and incorrectly included the money within the plan.

The disaster planning program didn’t meet federal standards for being labeled a group project, FHWA officials wrote. 

In addition to the projects excluded from Wednesday’s approval, federal officials also critiqued the process used by the state to write the STIP, noting that public comments weren’t accepted after a 45-day period, and that the state didn’t properly document its consultation with tribes.

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