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Ports and Airports: Funding falls short of needs

Two stories really stand out as we publish the May issue: “Alaska’s Ports, Harbors, and Docks: Integral to commerce and travel” (page 42) and “New and Improved Airport Runways: A key lifeline for rural Alaskans” (page 51). Both have the elements of transportation and construction at the forefront. Both get the point across that aviation and marine facilities are crucial to the movement of goods and people across Alaska, and although there are 4,900 miles of paved roads in the state, less than 20 percent of the communities in the state are connected by roads.

With so many communities across the state roadless, I am reminded that for many Alaskans, aviation is the only means of year-round transport. Luckily, the federal government keeps sending money to Alaska for airport improvements, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a big airport or a little airport, millions are appropriated every year to bring Alaska’s airports up to federal mandates. Although, at around $20 million per rural airport, the pace of the funds isn’t even close to what it needs to be. However, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities works with what is doled out and continues to relocate rural airports to bring them into compliance.

Many of Alaska’s roadless communities have a seasonal savior in marine transportation. Maybe a barge will make it once a year, maybe there is year-round marine access, or maybe frequency of marine access is somewhere in between. The community could be on a river, a lake, or on the coast—Alaska has 33,904 miles of tidal shoreline. The beauty of marine transportation is the savings realized in the transportation costs and the ability to ship larger items than might fit on the size of planes landing at the majority of rural airports as well as the capacity for shipping a larger volume of goods.

If only there were similarly funded federal mandates covering our rural ports and harbors! The state estimates there are about five hundred ports, harbors, and docks in the state, but there are no federal mandates or associated funding for improvements. So, when deciding whether to reinforce an eroding bank to tie up an annual barge or build out a gangway and add new floats, the decision might come down to how many people and boats are going to be using the facilities in the long run.

Get ready though, in the coming years Alaska will see billions of dollars pouring into the state to develop transportation infrastructure for Arctic resource development and commerce. So don’t miss this month’s stories about ports and airports, or any of the rest of the really great magazine the team at Alaska Business Monthly has put together. Enjoy!

—Susan Harrington, Managing Editor

This first appeared in the May 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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