A new report by conservation groups on Gov. Sean Parnell‘s plan to build roads to resource-rich parts of Alaska claims the projects will cost much more than most people realize.
The study comes at an important time, with lawmakers weeks away from making a decision on next year’s budget.
The study’s backers, including The Wilderness Society, oppose building long roads across the Arctic tundra — but they say this issue is not so much about the environment as it is about making wise use of state money.
Parnell’s “Roads to Resources” proposal would build or improve passages to areas of the state where geologists think there are unreached caches of minerals, oil, and gas. For example, a new road to Umiat could link the Dalton Highway with petroleum deposits in the foothills of the Brooks Range.
The Parnell administration and the Legislature have already directed $25 million into the Umiat road project, and plan to add another $10 million to continue planning in 2013.
“These are speculative projects — we don’t know if the mining is going to pan out, so to speak,” said Lois Epstein, an engineer and Arctic program director with The Wilderness Society.
On Thursday TWS and other conservation groups will release the study, which shows the state will need hundreds of millions of dollars — perhaps even $1 billion — to actually build the roads.
“We want to see good priorities set in terms of transportation; we don’t think these roads to resources are the best use of state money,” Epstein said.
State officials, however, see things differently.
“Compared to any other state in the union we have a very, very significant lack of infrastructure,” said Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan.
The Parnell administration argues the up-front expense of planning roads and studying the resources will make Alaska more attractive to mining and oil companies looking to do business.
In addition, officials say it doesn’t have to be the state paying for construction. Planners have been discussing partnering with tribal organizations, private industry, even the federal government to make the blueprints a reality.
“That issue of coming together with different entities (is) very important, and there’s no one set way to approach this,” Sullivan said.
One of the projects under the “Roads to Resources” umbrella is a package of money to improve the Klondike Highway near Skagway. It’s a project on which both the conservationists and the Parnell administration seem to find common ground — since the road already exists