Murkowski talks harbor expansion, election during Homer visit

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, spent last Wednesday in Homer, visiting city officials to discuss the city’s capital improvement plan, including the Homer Harbor expansion project. Murkowski also stopped in at the Homer News office to discuss the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as well as her reelection campaign.

“It was a good catch-up for what’s going on in Homer,” Murkowski said of her visit.

Murkowski, joined by Coast Guard Rear Admiral Nathan Moore, toured the Homer Harbor with Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins and other city officials to learn more about the expansion project, which would allow large vessels to dock in Homer. Murkowski noted the project is “a significant priority and need” that will “benefit this community and region.”

“We recognize that you have clear need. You have an asset out on that spit that needs to be, deserves to be enhanced,” Murkowski said of the harbor.

“To have the opportunity to build an expansion of that port that tucks you in to truly a more safe harbor, I think, is something that is going to bring exceptional value to this community,” she said. “I looked at things like ports and harbors as being the economic driver of our coastal communities, and Homer is clearly in that position.”

The expansion will begin with a three-year general investigation study conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which Alaska’s Congressional delegation has adamantly supported. Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young wrote a letter to the assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works requesting the harbor study begin with the supplemental funds appropriated to the corps through the infrastructure act.

“Homer’s port expansion would meet the growing market demands of the marine industry, address navigational hazards, and capture new economic opportunities,” the delegation wrote. “The project will positively impact the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Alaskans through job creation, economic development, and strengthened national security well into the future.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ study will analyze data concerning the economic, environmental, geophysical and engineering benefits of expanding the harbor. The Homer Harbor expansion will support more large vessels, bringing more commerce and visitors to the area.

“It is an improvement that is much needed,” Hawkins said. “We have a severe lack of moorage for large vessels and you can see that.”

The City of Homer has allocated $750,000 for the project and is looking to the State of Alaska to match their funds. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, if the study is approved, will match the state’s $1.5 million for the study, bringing the total to $3 million.

According to Hawkins, the Alaska branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has placed the port expansion at the top of its new start project list, which Murkowski said is reassuring for the success of the project.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers only designates so many of those every year, so that’s a big step forward when (the harbor expansion) has been put forward as Alaska’s number one new start project,” Hawkins said.

Homer City Manager Rob Dumouchel said the city’s meetings with Murkowski and Moore concerning the harbor expansion went well, and they were thankful for her support moving the project along.

“We have had a lot of support from Senator Murkowski for the harbor expansion project,” Dumouchel said in an email to Homer News. “Her staff has been a huge help in connecting us with relevant staff within the federal government as we have pursued funding for the new start general investigation with the Army Corps of Engineers. I believe that we are very close to securing the federal funds for the general investigation, which is a major planning step required to move forward with an actual expansion of the harbor.”

The infrastructure act, passed in November 2021, did not set aside money for specific projects, Murkowski explained, but instead uses formula funding and grants to distribute federal monies. According to a Whitehouse factsheet, the infrastructure bill allocated approximately $5 billion for projects in Alaska.

“It is important for people to realize that within the infrastructure bill, there was not earmarked money, in other words, not for specific projects,” Murkowski said. “So much of it will come by way of formula funding, particularly the road money, bridge money formulas. Much of the other will come by way of grants. Through that grant process, grants require application, so you’ve got to get in there and be competitive.”

Murkowski said that when lawmakers were working on the bill, they made sure the qualifications for receiving funding were not solely based on cost-benefit ratios, which would focus the money in highly populated areas that serve more people, when more rural areas were also in need.

“A real emphasis (was put) on providing for infrastructure in the underserved and unserved areas, particularly rural America. Well, we are about as rural America as you’re going to get,” Murkowski said. “Whether it’s in broadband or waste water, we made sure to make sure the rural areas were going to have an opportunity to compete.”

While the Army Corps of Engineers has not finalized its 2022 budget, the city and Murkowski are hopeful the project will move forward with success.

In addition to discussing the harbor expansion, Murkowski also reflected on her 20 years as a U.S. senator.

“As a senator, I’ve grown in a way that makes me confident in my ability to represent a state that is unique among the 50 states,” Murkowski said. “I know my state; I’m a third-generation Alaskan and I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I think I have developed a reputation as one who is really a fierce advocate for Alaska’s uniqueness.”

This year, for the first time, Alaskans will use a ranked choice voting system. In 2020, Alaskans voted to do away with party primaries; instead, voters will receive a single ballot listing all of the candidates. The top four vote-getters will move on to a general election where voters will rank the candidates in order of preference.

“This whole ranked choice voting is going to be very interesting for Alaskans, but I’m hopeful,” Murkowski said. “The more I learn about it, the more I think OK, that might actually work.”

“It’s going to be different and we’re going to spend a little bit of focus on educating people on it, but I think we’re all going to be learning, looking and seeing,” she continued. “Other states are looking and seeing what happens in Alaska, and we’ll either demonstrate this was a really smart thing or a wild experiment.”

While Murkowski is registered as a Republican, she said it is necessary to not always align with her party in order to best serve her state’s needs. Murkowski acknowledged how important it is to be able to represent a diverse group of people if she’s going to be reelected, which she says she has done in the past by remaining in the middle on numerous issues instead of picking sides.

“I have found that Alaskans don’t always just sit well in either lane off to the side. We’re kind of a mixed batch,” she explained. “Our challenges are so different and so unique that just joining your party’s views doesn’t necessarily represent your state’s best interest. You’ve got to be able to say, ‘I’m here because the people of Alaska want me to serve them, not serve my party or your party, but to serve them.’

“In order to serve them, I may have to stand out on my own in the middle a little bit.”

Murkowski noted how polarized the country has become in her 20 years as a senator. When asked how to move past political party divisions in order to effectively govern, she emphasized the need for middle ground.

“I don’t know how to get us back, but I know one way for sure that … we’ll never get back is when those who have been trying to bring people to the middle, trying to get out of the political trenches, say ‘This is just too hard. I’m giving up,’” Murkowski said.

“So that’s why I’m running again.”

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U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, visited with Homer News staff on Wednesday, Jan. 26, to discuss infrastructure opportunities and what she has learned during her tenure. (Photo by Sarah Knapp/Homer News)
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, stands outside the Homer News office after spending the day in Homer. (Photo by Sarah Knapp/Homer News)
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, visits with Homer News staff during her trip to Homer on Wednesday, Jan. 26. (Photo by Sarah Knapp/Homer News)