A North Slope Road Network?

On September 7, 2017, Alaska Public Media reported that governor Bill Walker has budgeted $7.3M to plan an epic endeavor across Alaska’s Arctic. This post responds to the news.

A bit of background: most of Alaska’s communities are not accessible by automobile. Per Alaska’s lovably embarrassing Congressman Don Young, 82% of Alaska’s communities are not linked to an outside roadway.

By my reckoning, this has its up and downsides. On the upshot, these communities’ remoteness has led to an amazingly resilient culture with a history of daring pilots and jaunty stoicism.

A80A2DB7-89AF-429C-AE66-222E9CF8EEBE
Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” – Most of Alaska 

But some think that roads might be nice. Cause as it stands, current conditions are inherently risky for travel and make for a ghastly expensive cost of living.

Here’s Alaska’s current roadway system (the blue bits are prohibitively expensive ferry routes; not for the weak of stomach or light of wallet):

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Courtesy of alaskacenters.gov

For many Alaskans, their way of life and this map might change in the not-to-distant future.

Governor Walker’s newly announced project could literally re-write routes for accessing the Arctic. Places that are currently only available by sea or air will now be drivable. It’s a mind-blowing concept.

Observe! The Arctic Strategic Transportation and Resource Project, which we can affectionately call ASTAR. I assume this project’s marketing team collectively sighed with pleasure at such a punchy acronym.

But righteous acronyms don’t make projects happen, money does. As such, I’m hesitant to embrace this mega-project-in-the-making.

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Courtesy of Alaska Public Media

The first sad reality the planning team will have to accept is that Alaska is strapped for cash. This recently necessitated cutting budget item after budget item to make up for a growing deficit. So the question becomes: can Alaska afford it?

Some important things to bear in mind:

All of these indicate urgent demands on Alaska’s dwindling fiscal resources during a time of lessening income from oil revenue.

But maybe ASTAR can help with that. One of the project’s selling points touts possibilities for oil exploration and drilling in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. But Alaska has been burned by oil before – one of the reasons the state is hard-hit for cash presently stems from downward oil demand and prices as renewable energy surpasses fossil fuel growth more and more each year.

 

DSCN4711
A road network? Sure, why not?

However, what if this project gets driven (and potentially paid for) by oil companies? That could make this a far more realistic endeavor. After all, Alaska’s modern economy has historically been fueled by oil profits, jobs, and interests. I’m guessing mining outfits might benefit too, as this would certainly make exploration and extraction cheaper for them.

So, assuming Alaska can get money enough to build this thing, great! Jobs for Alaskans, Access for communities that need it most. Winning!

But ASTAR still has an uphill battle looming large.

Such roads would require IMMENSE technical expertise to get on the ground. Like, basically a brain trust of Arctic engineers. Most of the ground up in the Arctic is permafrost. Permanently frozen ground. Except the “permanence” part is fading, that stuff is melting fast.

So, not only are they going to build on some of Alaska’s most treacherous and inhospitable terrain, it must also be done with enough foresight to reinforce this thing lest it sink into the massive swamp the North Slope is destined to become.

Combine these factors with rising sea levels, shrinking sea ice, diminishing glaciers, and increased risk of diseases flying forth from the massive melt, and there’s a potential for a lot of headaches.

 

DSCN4596
O’er rivers, swamps, and hills we go…tra la la 

Finally, let’s flash forward a few years and say this thing is built and on the ground. What about upkeep? Snow removal, structural degradation, flooding, resurfacing? It’s a huge swath of country up there and it’s all gonna cost oodles.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is already scaling back services due to budgetary restraints. Adding such a colossal load to an already over-burdened department sounds ominous. It’s like watching someone fail at spinning plates. And so you respond by handing them additional plates that are even more fragile.

Plus, the state will need to hire a lot more State Troopers to patrol these roads. Otherwise, smuggling and bootlegging could run rampant in towns already ravaged by alcohol and drug addictions. Oh, and let’s make sure there are enough gas stations and fast food stops along the way, alright?

It looks bleak, I’ll admit. But there are crazy cool benefits that could be had as well. Just think of the potential tourism to some of Alaska’s more gorgeous settings! It’d be amazing, especially since many of our parks’ biggest barriers to entry are the expensive flights required to gain access.

Seriously, I hope that this project can happen. It’d be an outstanding feat of engineering and ingenuity. What’s more, it would connect Alaska’s furthest-flung villages to one another and the rest of North America. Providing educational opportunities, increased supply-chain reliability, and a wider worldview. It’d also be an excellent economic boost, as jobs are especially needed in Alaska right now.

But tragically, I’m just not sure it can happen presently. Alaska’s legislature is sorta broken and reluctant to cooperate with our Governor-in-Chief. Is it feasible? Perhaps. But is it the best move to save a stumbling state economy? Mehhhh…

Maybe that is what Governor Walker’s $7.3M budget allocation will help ascertain. Not the how, but the when.

Until then, we’re left to think of the future and wonder.

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