FHA Rejects Alaska's Transportation Plans

By JAMES BROOKS
Alaska Beacon
    Federal officials have rejected Alaska’s proposed multi-year transportation plan, which could disrupt the summer construction season and endanger billions of dollars in federal grants for roads, trails, ferries and bridges.
    In a letter dated Feb. 9, the head of the Federal Highway Administration in Alaska said problems uncovered in a “joint and thorough review” made it impossible to approve Alaska’s State Transportation Improvement Program, or STIP, a document required by federal law that designates four years’ worth of federally funded construction projects.

Road damage from permafrost thaw is seen in Fairbanks on July 23, 2020. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

    It’s an extraordinary action — no other state is facing a similar situation, and most have had their plans approved for weeks, if not months or longer.
    Alaska has previously submitted plans without incident, and the issues identified by the Federal Highway Administration aren’t minor: An attachment to the FHWA letter listed 24 pages of problems with Alaska’s latest plan.
    Some of the issues appear similar to ones identified in an August hearing conducted by the House Transportation Committee, and in letters submitted by regional planning officials to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which is in charge of writing the STIP.
    Minor issues with the plan may be fixed in amendments, but the FHWA identified several major problems that must be fixed before a March 1 deadline.
    Shannon McCarthy, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, said some summertime projects will go forward even if the state misses the deadline. Others will not.
    “This really does affect our guys’ ability to go to work this summer,” said Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO.
    “This is thousands of jobs, thousands and thousands of jobs,” she said.
    The scale of the problem and potential consequences have alarmed state legislators, many of whom only became aware of the issue this week, after political writer Jeff Landfield published a copy of the FHWA rejection online.
    The plan currently contains $5.6 billion in projects, and all but $522 million of that figure would come from the federal government — but only if the STIP is approved.
    “It isn’t just one area,” said Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak. “It will affect just about every district. And that has a huge, huge impact.”
    Some legislators said they’re reserving judgment until they see how the Department of Transportation addresses the situation.
    “I would say it’s concerning, but it shouldn’t be alarming,” said Sen. James Kaufman, R-Anchorage and chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. “I don’t think we’re going to get into the worst-case scenario where we just don’t have a (construction) season.”
    Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake and the chair of the House Transportation Committee, declined comment through a spokesperson, saying that he’s adjusted the committee’s previously scheduled Thursday meeting to include a briefing on the issue from the DOT commissioner.
    Trey Watson, the spokesperson, said McCabe wants to get information directly from the commissioner before commenting.
    McCarthy, of DOT, said the agency plans to pull problematic projects from the STIP in order to focus staff time and attention on the problems that must be addressed before approval.
    “We anticipate being able to address those corrections and resubmit the STIP by the end of next week, February 23,” she said by email.
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