Alaska and New Infrastructure Funds: We Promise Not to Waste It!

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Over half of the law’s new funds will go to transportation, $284 billion of $550 billion in new money. Roads and bridges are the largest portion of these transportation investments. Alaska’s funding for road and bridge projects will increase by approximately 26% to $3.7 billion over five years for roughly 5,600 miles of state roads and the state’s 845 bridges, many of which are structurally deficient. Alaska’s Marine Highway System of ferries, which currently is struggling financially, should receive hundreds of millions of dollars through a new $1 billion program for rural communities. The state’s airports will receive $392 million, plus the opportunity to compete for additional funding. 

With this new infusion of federal infrastructure money, Alaska and other states need to avoid the spending mistakes made in the past, such as politicians announcing the start of costly transportation projects that the public does not need and does not want to pay to build or maintain. States should only fund transportation projects that have been thoroughly vetted by local and state planners and the public for success. It wasn’t easy for the Alaskan public to stop bridges and a road to nowhere, but persistent engagement utilizing volunteer and paid legal, economic, technical, and communications expertise eventually made the projects politically toxic.

So how can Alaska and other states ensure they spend the new federal transportation funds wisely? As the former head of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project (ATPP), I recommend beginning with a vision for local and statewide transportation. In addition to maximizing transit and bicycling/walking opportunities, the vision should assume a climate-changed future, including remote workers who do not commute and electrified transportation systems. 

As an example, Alaska non-profit organizations involved in transportation decision-making developed the following principles to incorporate into our state vision and specific projects:

  • Focus on maintaining existing roads and bridges rather than new infrastructure. Polling shows this is a political winner.

  • Ensure there is local support for proposed transportation infrastructure.

  • Make transportation planning and project development decisions in an open, transparent, and accountable manner.

  • Select and incentivize use of lower carbon transportation options.

  • Prioritize state spending on projects that benefit the public (e.g., pedestrian safety and transit), including low-income and Indigenous populations, rather than industry. 

  • Protect fish and wildlife through infrastructure design, construction, and operations, including utilizing ferries instead of roads wherever possible to protect habitat.

As an engineer, I get it. New megaprojects are sexy to announce and build, while maintenance of existing infrastructure is not. Alaska is a largely rural state with a harsh climate, earthquakes, flooding, and permafrost thawing, however, and that means existing transportation infrastructure requires constant maintenance. The state has plenty of pressing road and bridge maintenance needs and a neglected ferry system—fixing those will keep transportation engineers and workers busy for many years. The new federal infrastructure funds represent a rare opportunity to address maintenance deficiencies while also implementing a forward-looking transportation vision.

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