Unique Transportation Challenges, Common Concerns

When it comes to meeting the transportation needs of its residents, Alaska has some defining characteristics that set it apart from other states in the challenges it faces.
“Alaska’s primary challenges stem primarily from its vastness, limited infrastructure and arctic climate,” said John R. Binder III, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Transportation.
“As a state more than twice the size of Texas, a comprehensive, multi-modal transportation system would be nearly impossible to obtain.”
Binder will be among the speakers at a policy workshop from 10 a.m. to noon Aug. 10 presented by the CSG Transportation Public Policy Committee during the CSG National and CSG West Annual Conference in Anchorage.
With 82 percent of Alaska’s communities not connected to a road system, the state owns and operates 254 airports providing a critical lifeline to rural Alaska. The harsh arctic climate means maintaining the current infrastructure exhausts limited resources very quickly.
While those challenges make the state unique, Alaska also faces many of the concerns other states face with regard to the future of transportation funding at the state and federal levels.
“Alaska does not have a specified transportation fund, with all state transportation funding coming from the general fund,” Binder said. “As federal dollars continue to decline, or are directed toward priorities that don’t necessarily align with the state’s assessment, development of a state transportation fund continues to gain traction.” 
State Rep. Peggy Wilson sponsored a resolution during the most recent legislative session that would have asked voters to consider amending Alaska’s constitution to create a dedicated fund to pay for airport, highway and other transportation projects. But the resolution failed to make it through the process and won’t be on the ballot this year.
Like other states, Alaska also is looking at how to produce the revenues necessary to fund its unique transportation portfolio, Binder said.
“With an aviation system serving primarily subsistence-based rural communities, revenue generated through rates and fees covers only a fraction of the total operating cost,” he said. “Thus, a concerted effort is underway to investigate various mechanisms that will help make the system more self-sustaining.”
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 49 percent of Alaska’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition. The state has just 15,718 public road miles across its vast expanse of 586,412 square miles. At 8 cents per gallon, Alaska’s gas tax is the lowest in the nation and has not been increased in 44 years. Despite that, Alaska still has some of the highest gas prices in the country due to high distribution costs.
For Binder, Alaska’s limited resources and diverse and foreign landscape mean he and his team must maintain a constant dialogue and education process with those they work with to ensure the state’s pressing transportation needs are understood and addressed.
“We continue to learn that consistent, open communication with our stakeholders on everything from local and regional planning, project development, and construction progress, to regular maintenance and operational activities, serves to gain the trust and support of the users and pave the way for significantly smoother transportation system management,” he said.
In addition to Binder’s presentation, other speakers will address the Anchorage transportation workshop’s theme of “Planning for the Future in Uncertain Times.” 
Emily Feenstra, director for infrastructure initiatives at the American Society of Civil Engineers, will discuss a new report that shows many state transportation agencies use a wide range of parameters in measuring life cycle cost analysis. Feenstra said a survey conducted in conjunction with the report found that while a majority of respondents in government and the private sector believe that life cycle cost analysis should be an integral part of the decision-making and design process, they believe they need additional training or resources to be successful.
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