The Roads to Resources proposal set forth by Gov. Sean Parnell as a funding mechanism to jump start work on four surface transportation projects in Alaska is slowly gaining steam, according to officials close to the work.
In late 2011, the governor announced a $28.5 million budget proposal aimed at increasing access to resources currently outside the state’s road system.
“Better transportation corridors will open up petroleum and mining opportunities,” Gov. Parnell said at the time. “Mineral exploration expenditures are up, and with our efforts to streamline the permitting process, we are working to secure Alaska’s resources for Alaskans’ benefit.”
Under the Roads to Resources initiative, $4 million was allotted to Ambler road exploration.
Ryan Anderson, an engineer with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has been involved with both the Ambler and Tanana road projects.
Anderson said a feasibility study done two years ago on the Ambler road looked at both eastern and western routes connecting to the Ambler Mining District on the southwestern edge of the Brooks Range. The western routes aimed towards the Chukchi Sea presented problems because of the abundance of wetlands and lack of available road material, he said. Finding ways around federal park and preservation land posed other issues as well.
Current work is focused on a route connecting with the Dalton Highway at mile 135. Initial cost estimates for the road on this route come in at $430 million.
“The route that comes in from the Dalton Highway at Prospect Creek and traverses along the southern flank of the Brooks Range looks like the best option from both engineering and feasibility as well as land status,” Anderson said.
The 220-mile route stays primarily in state-owned, NANA Regional Corp. and Doyon Ltd. lands, he said. A small stretch passing through Gates of the Arctic National Park can be adjusted around parkland or continued in the park because of language in the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act, Anderson noted.
Optimally, the Transportation Department strives for one gravel site per 10 miles of road to provide ample base material for a project, and preliminary testing shows the Brooks Range corridor can provide that.
“From a gravel standpoint, that’s one of the reasons we chose the route along the mountains. Generally you have more gravel and so that was a big advantage of the route,” Anderson said.
Current work on the project includes environmental field studies, fish surveys, establishing icing patterns on streams and wetlands the road will intersect and determining necessary bridges and criteria over streams with sensitive fish populations, he said. The department also is working with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Anderson said, to utilize the school’s large network of meteorological equipment and climate data for the region.
Anderson said the study team also is talking to those who live in the area affected by the road while collecting technical data. “We’ve tried to tie all these environmental and engineering studies together and we’ve also tried to do a good job making sure we have local folks — we work with the tribes and the local communities,” he said. “We tie that traditional knowledge part into (the project) as well.”
The project timeline puts construction three years away if the environmental permitting process goes as planned.
The Tanana road project is a much closer reality, Anderson said.
“Our focus right now is the permit applications and then there will be some right-of-way acquisitions so we’re putting together the right-of-way documents. Our goal on Tanana’s road is to be building something next summer,” he said.
Being a predominantly upland corridor should allow for a quick environmental permitting process, Anderson said, as opposed to the complications wetlands can cause.
At present, the unimproved Tofty road extends off the end of the Elliot Highway from Manley Hot Springs for 15 miles in the direction of Tanana. Plans are to continue off the end of the Tofty road, making total construction of new road 39 miles. It will be a 16-foot wide, one-lane road costing $69 million to complete, according to a planning study finalized in December 2011.
Anderson called it a “pioneer road type access” and said widening could happen in the future, but for now the main focus is maximizing the $10 million Roads to Resources apportionment for the project.
While much has been made of the road to Tanana being the first leg of a road to Nome, Anderson pointed out that it is well beyond the scope of this undertaking. A 548-mile, one-lane to Nome is estimated at more than $1.1 billion dollars.
“When it comes down to it we aren’t funded for a road to Nome. We’re funded for this first stretch to Tanana. We’ve heard a lot from Tanana about the cost of living and how this road can benefit the community and provide some economic development,” he said.
Bear Ketzler Jr., city manager in Tanana, said the city is excited about the prospect of the road and the impact it will have on goods in the community.
As it stands, nearly all perishable grocery products are flown in via the bypass mail system.
“We’re expecting some products, such as milk, which right now is almost $12 a gallon – we could conceivably see it go down to $6 a gallon,” Ketlzer said.
To get a vehicle to Tanana costs roughly $1,300 one way, he said. It must be barged to or from Nenana. That cost will be virtually eliminated.
Ketzler said mining companies have expressed interest in the area surrounding Tanana and the access the road will provide may spur further development.
Building the road itself will provide Tanana with employment opportunities along with fuel for the wood biomass heating systems the city is installing in several of its buildings, he said.
“We’re working on potentially hiring a couple crews out to start brushing out the 150-foot right-of-way for the road with the efforts of saving as much biomass resource as possible,” Ketzler said.
The road will end on the south side of the Yukon River, requiring a ferry barge and ice road system to be employed, but Ketzler said the city is already holding planning meetings so it is properly equipped when the road is finished.
A final route for a road from the Dalton Highway to the village of Umiat on the North Slope is still up for debate, Pat Richardson, spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers said.
The Corps is working in conjunction with the transportation department on the project.
Roads to Resources allocated $10 million to the Umiat road project.
The original six corridor options were narrowed to three over the summer, Richardson said. The longest, a 116-mile route, would begin near Galbraith Lake at Dalton Highway milepost 278. A 100-mile road from Pump Station 2 at milepost 360 would end at the Umiat airport and the third option is a 95-mile road would utilize the current industrial use Spine Road near the Meltwater oil production site.
Richardson said the Corps hopes to have an environmental impact statement drafted in early 2014, to determine the best route. Cost estimates have not been made on any of the proposals.
The Klondike industrial use highway was awarded $2.5 million and is the only project in the Roads to Resources initiative already in use. The intent of the project is to “refurbish and strengthen the pavement and bridge structures to accommodate an anticipated large increase in the transport of ore from Canadian mines to the Port of Skagway,” according to DOT documents.
The general fund money is being used for design purposes only. Future construction funding has not been secured. Provided a funding mechanism is secured, the project is scheduled to be completed in summer, 2017.
The remaining $2 million of Parnell’s proposal was divided among smaller mining projects throughout the state.