Federal money for rural infrastructure is drying up, and state agencies are overhauling projects while they still can. With Alaska’s brief construction season about to begin, state officials are hurrying to bring airfields, roads, and other Bush infrastructure up to standard before funds get scarce.
The Alaska Department of Transportation is preparing for a busy summer in rural parts of the state.
“This is a 240 million dollar construction season for us,” said said DoT spokesperson Meadow Bailey. “We’re in over 20 communities across our region and then we have over 60 projects in those communities, so it’s a really busy construction season for us.”
Bailey is part of the DoT office in charge of most Bush projects. She’s making the rounds ahead of the construction season to get acquainted with project sites and meet local officials.
In Nome, the DoT is starting a $26.6 million runway extension at the airport in mid-May. More road and airport work is planned for Barrow, Kotzebue, Shishmaref, Emmonak, and elsewhere, along with an extensive new road project in the Interior.
“We’re building about 18 miles of new road close to the community of Tanana, and the goal there is to be able to open up a mining coordior that has existing mines on it now but to give more access for those miners.” Bailey went on to explain another aim of the project, “To give the residents of Tanana—or to enable to residents of Tanana, to have a lower cost of living.”
DoT is aggressively pursuing rural programs this summer in part because plans for larger projects fell apart during the legislative session. The state also expects federal money for infrastructure is going to decrease in the next few years.
“We’re actually talking about kind of a restructuring of the DoT system. So that’ll be a real shift that we’ll see coming up in the next few years,” Bailey said of the department front-loading it’s Bush projects. “We have dollars right now, and we have projects in rural communities; last year, this year, next year—we’re going to try and build and improve as much as we can because we know there’s going to be a shift in Federal funding.”
More than 90% of Alaska’s money for airports, roads, and the Southeast Ferry System comes from Federal money. And not only are the funds diminishing, but nation-wide spending priorities are shifting toward cities.
“The focus is going to be more on urban areas,” Bailey said. “T there’s a lot of focus on more transit programs like bussing, cycling paths, that kind of stuff, and mass transit. And so in Alaska that’s going to really change the focus from the rural communities to more urban communities. And that’s the way federal programs are going to be funded.”
With a looming sea- change in funding priorities, Alaska DoT is proactively trying to bring remote roadways and airstrips up to date. That’s not an easy task in areas where a single-lane gravel road can cost up to a million dollars a mile.