Marc Luiken

GUEST COMMENTARY: Time is right for infrastructure investments

From the White House to the steps of the Alaska State Capitol, the need to maintain and improve our roads, buildings, and other critical infrastructure is evident. That is why Gov. Bill Walker introduced the Alaska Economic Recovery Act, which would establish a payroll tax capped at 1.5 percent that sunsets after three years. If approved by lawmakers, this proposal will inject $1.4 billion into deferred maintenance projects, improving dozens of communities across our state and putting more than a thousand Alaskans to work. At the federal level, we also need to recognize President Donald Trump’s efforts in proposing a framework to rebuild our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Under the president’s proposed Rural Infrastructure Program, Alaska would receive a portion of $50 billion. This program will generate block grants for governors to direct funding to communities with fewer than 50,000 residents. In other words, nearly the entire Last Frontier would qualify. This approach to funding enables the State to prioritize projects that matter most to rural communities and Tribes. Many villages face significant infrastructure challenges or will soon due to impacts of climate change. Roads, schools, and homes along Alaska’s sprawling Western coast are threatened due to coastal erosion, and a swath of our state that comprises urban and rural communities is grappling with the effects of thawing permafrost. We simply cannot wait years for federal agencies to get through a permitting process that could be put on a fast-track without negatively impacting the environment in any way. Alaskans deserve streamlined regulatory and permitting, particularly when it comes to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, or NEPA”) process which far too often causes public works projects to grind to a halt. Reduced bureaucracy is another key benefit of the proposed Trump infrastructure plan for Alaskans. The “one agency, one decision” process is welcomed and long overdue. Currently, many federal agencies would play a role in the issuance of permits for infrastructure projects under the current Federal process. Alaska’s experience has shown how big of a burden this can be. For more than four decades, federal agencies and others have attempted complete a NEPA document on a project to improve a dangerous stretch of road on the Kenai Peninsula: the Sterling Highway’s Cooper Landing Bypass. This month, the Federal Highway Administration completed the project’s environmental impact statement and allowed the project to move forward just six months after the process was restarted. Progress on the Cooper Landing Bypass is just one example of what is possible for Alaska under President Trump’s administration, a glimpse of what federal and state agencies are capable of when properly motivated and given timelines to follow. This is especially promising as we work with our federal partners to develop the proposed Alaska LNG Project, which will be one of the largest infrastructure projects in the history of this country. This project is too important to the future economic growth of Alaskan, and the recent announcement of an expected timeline for the Federal EIS is an encouraging sign. The introduction of permit fast tracking and infrastructure priorities at the Federal level combined with an infusion of badly needed monies at the state level promises a brighter future for economic growth in Alaska. Marc Luiken is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
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