Legislature’s inaction could stall ‘life or death’ safety improvements to Haines highway
The Haines Highway is one of the several projects statewide that would be immediately impacted if lawmakers don’t pass a capital budget before July. The federal government is slated to spend between $40 to $50 million on safety improvements this summer, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation. But, lawmakers must first approve funding for a 9 percent state match on the project.
For residents, the project is about more than convenience. Between narrow roads, fast-changing weather, rock slides, windy turns and few guardrails, the Haines highway can be a dangerous passage. Some in town say road renovations are so badly needed, it’s now gotten to the point of life or death for drivers.
Lynette Campbell has been driving the Haines Highway year-round for the last six years. She herself had a close call when a bolder nearly landed on top of her car — and that’s not the only dangerous slide she’s encountered.
In the last two years, she and her husband, George Campbell, have had to help friends pull their cars out of the frozen river three times.
“I think it’s to the point where it will become life or death for some people,” said Campbell. “Every day that goes by that we get more frost heaves and that we get new people coming by that aren’t prepared for it, it just increases the amount of stress and tension that we go through.”
Campbell began documenting the accidents on camera. The most recent one is from two winters ago when a friend’s vehicle hit a frost heave on the highway and veered off the road onto frozen water.
“I was just on pins and needles thinking that it was going to go through the ice, at any moment,” Campbell recalled. “He was in shock and had a mild concussion. I took him into the clinic, he really didn’t want to go. But, his car, although the side was smashed, once we pulled it out it was drivable, and he took it home and had a friend fix it and he went on.”
Now, the federal government has come to the rescue with repairs, so long as the state doesn’t stand in the way.
A renovated road is an essential stepping stone for economic development in the area too.
Constantine Metal Resources is currently exploring for copper and zinc near Haines and depends on the road to get groceries, fuel and equipment to employees in the field.
Through exploration alone, the company estimates it brings in about $2 million a year for the state economy. That could increase significantly if the company were to move forward with a mine in the future.
“Those types of mines are in the range of a few hundred employees to operate, so, it would be a lot of year-round, full-time jobs for the area,” Cornejo explained in an interview Thursday — adding that the road in its current condition poses challenges.
“The two slide areas have definitely caused shutdowns on our project at times,” Cornejo said. “For any economic development project, you need to get people to your project, and goods to your project, and get your product to market as well. And so, roads in Alaska are really vital to any of that and really help the economics of a potential project like a mine, as well as any tourism operation or logging operation.”
In the meantime, drivers like Campbell are hopeful construction on the road can start soon — before winter or any new landslides hit the highway.
The project has been more than a decade in the making and it might finally be shovel ready this summer. Without a capital budget, that timeline could get pushed back another year.
Lawmakers cannot take up a capital budget until Governor Bill Walker adds the legislation to his special session call. Walker wants legislators to make changes to the state’s oil tax system first.
The post Legislature’s inaction could stall ‘life or death’ safety improvements to Haines highway appeared first on KTVA 11.