JUNEAU — Gov. Sean Parnell backed a request Wednesday for $44 million in state aid to finish preparation for a proposed Tanana River bridge.
The pledge of support comes as Interior groups ask state lawmakers for the help.
The Legislature’s Interior delegation hopes to tuck the funding into annual statewide spending plans.
“Construction of the bridge would bring more economic opportunity to the Interior and more training opportunities for our military,” Parnell wrote Wednesday on his Facebook page.
Business, government and labor leaders from Fairbanks have peppered the 11-member House Finance Committee with requests to back the bridge. They said it could be the bridge’s last shot. The railroad expects federal pledges will start to dissolve this summer without a last shot of state funding this spring.
“I believe this is a shovel-ready project that will provide jobs now for the state and this community,” said Lake Williams, business agent for Fairbanks’ operators union.
The bridge would connect the Interior’s road system to vast military training grounds south of the river.
“We believe it’s a vital project in terms of anchoring the military and their presence in Alaska,” said Tom Brice, a business agent with the District Council of Laborers. He said the proposed bridge’s parent project, the 80-mile railroad track extension, would also help advance a gradual, eastward march of track toward the Canada border.
It was the first day of review by the House committee of a $2.8 billion construction-and-capital spending bill. The Senate voted Tuesday night to share the bill, and the Legislature has less than a week to approve the plan or wait for a second special session.
The railroad holds $104 million in defense funding, already approved by Congress, to build the bridge and a related levee. It’s a little over half of the project’s combined $188 million cost, and railroad officials say the $44 million, combined with a state grant from last year, would put them over the top. They expect construction could start this summer if federal agencies — which raised environmental concerns last year and again this winter — sign off.
Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, said she hopes the committee will support her delegation’s request. She acknowledged having personal reservations, citing last year’s cost increase and an absence of strong, explicit military support during legislative debate. But Wilson said the project’s upside is significant, adding that the Interior’s vast lands and airspace offer the military a resource hard to find in other U.S. communities.
“If we’re ever getting a railroad to the (Canada) border, this is how it’s going to happen,” she said.
Local governments and the chamber of commerce have backed the $44 million request. Former Fairbanks Mayor Jim Sampson and current borough Mayor Luke Hopkins weighed in again Wednesday morning. Hopkins said the project’s economic development implications would ripple across the state.
“It’s going to be, in just a short time, (that we) have more access to training grounds that are critical for both the bases in Anchorage and in the Fairbanks area,” he said.
Fairbanks resident Roger Burggraf also called on the House committee to fund the project.
“It’ll strengthen our military presence in the Interior and be beneficial for the state of Alaska in general,” he said.
The railroad had to reapproach the Legislature for more money this year after price estimates for the bridge jumped. Jon Cook, a Fairbanks consultant and a board director at the railroad, said the corporation is confident its new cost estimate is firm. Last year’s changes, he said, were cause largely by federal agencies’ demands for design tweaks.
“The board is supportive of this project,” Cook said. “We think it is a good economic development project.”
Contact staff writer Christopher Eshleman at 459-7582.