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Econ 919 — State transportation plan

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Work on the Cooper Landing Bypass, west of Juneay
Riley Board
Work on the Cooper Landing Bypass, west of Juneau Creek, in Sept. 2023.

After Alaska’s four-year statewide transportation plan was rejected by federal agencies in February, the plan has been revised and received partial approval. The rejection put billions in federally funded highway projects at risk, but officials say this step will allow construction to move forward, as they continue to work though some of the fixes in the federal findings.

Alaska’s Department of Transportation submitted a revised version of its Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan, or STIP, by March 1, and received the partial approval on March 27.

DOT Commissioner Ryan Anderson presented in a House Transportation committee meeting on Tuesday to update lawmakers. He said the STIP issue hasn’t slowed down the department, which is planning to obligate and award more than $1 billion in construction contracts this season.

“So it’s a big construction contract year, and with this partial approval of the STIP, we’re confident that we’re moving and that we’re gonna make this year happen,” Anderson said.

There are six major projects that the federal agencies excluded from the approved STIP, including almost $70 million for Port of Anchorage work, a passenger rail improvement project and $23 million for bridge and tunnel inspections. Federal officials flagged some of these projects because they should have been included in the planning documents for local transportation planning groups, and others because they had unclear funding plans or were incorrectly grouped.

Anderson said in addition to the excluded projects, the federal findings include two other categories of fixes DOT will need to address. The department has six months to fix projects that were classified as Tier 2 issues, and will have to address questions with certain Tier 3 projects when they ask for funding.

“That’s where we go back and forth when we submit a request for approval to Fed Highways to obligate money to move a project forward,” Anderson said, explaining Tier 3 to the committee. “There’ll be discussions, because they still had some questions on that project; they’re not saying that it’s excluded from the STIP, they’re just saying that when we go through that, we’ll have some questions.”

The Sterling Highway Milepost 45-60 project, better known as the Cooper Landing Bypass, falls under this category. In their findings, the federal agencies ask for more details about the entry, including total project costs, funding needs post-2027 for any phase of work not completed within the STIP years and the advanced construction balance.

Shannon McCarthy, a spokesperson for DOT, said the STIP situation shouldn’t really affect this particular project, and that the bypass will get done. But it hit a snag last year when costs more than doubled, and the department is still waiting on word about outside funding that would allow it to complete the bypass faster.

“If we can secure additional funding, we can go ahead and build the final phase of the roadway, the highway connecting it,” McCarthy said. “But if we can’t find the additional money, it will take longer in terms of: this phase will finish, and then the next phase will begin.”

She said this summer, the department is focused on the construction of the Juneau Creek Bridge, which will be the longest single-span bridge in the state once complete. The original projected completion date for the bypass was 2027; if the phases have to be completed in succession, that timeline could be pushedby a couple of years.

“The department still intends to complete the project, we really want to be able to finish all the phases concurrently, but at this point, just due to the funding, we’ll have to do this phase first, then the next phase,” McCarthy said.

Other items among the dozens in Tier 3 include the Kenai Spur Highway Rehabilitation project, Sterling and Seward Highway intersection improvements and the Seward Highway Milepost 25.5-37 Rehabilitation work.

Dozens of projects were also removed from the STIP during the revision, including a plan to fix two Cooper Landing-area bridges and the Seward Highway Milepost 98.5-115.3 Reconstruction. However, as Anderson clarified on Tuesday, that doesn’t necessarily mean the projects won’t happen — just that they’ll have to be added back by amendment later.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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