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Don Young credited with saving Alaska Railroad from 'drastic' cuts

Scott Woodham
Scott McMurren photo

Working inside a congressional conference committee, Rep. Don Young on Thursday helped secure several funding plums for Alaska totaling nearly $1 billion over the next two years in the massive $120 billion federal transportation spending bill. 

The conference agreement moves the bill forward, with a final vote expected as early as Friday.

The bill contains millions in funding for the Alaska Railroad, Alaska Marine Highway and the Tribal Transportation Program that had been in jeopardy. Young was appointed by House Speaker John Boehner to serve on the conference committee.

“My priority from day one as a member of the conference committee has been Alaska,” Young said, according to a press release. “The Senate-passed highway bill hung Alaskans out to dry and would have had drastic implications across the state. Whether we’re talking about vital rail funding in the Interior, ferry funding in Southeast or Tribal Transportation funding in rural Alaska – the Senate-passed bill would have severely impacted Alaska.”

Luke Miller, Rep. Young's press secretary, said three key items important to Alaska were restored due to Young's efforts in the conference committee:

  • The Alaska Railroad will receive $31 million annually in Federal Transit Authority (FTA) funding, roughly $24 million more than the Senate-passed bill provided.
  • The Alaska Marine Highway will receive an increase in funding because of greater importance to be placed on route miles. Rep. Young was also able to secure guaranteed funding for Alaska’s ferries by ensuring that ferry funding come from the Highway Trust Fund instead of being subject to the annual congressional appropriations process as the Senate-passed bill indicated.
  • Tribal Transportation funding was preserved for smaller, geographically isolated tribes. Two hundred Alaska tribes stood to lose more than $13.5 million. Through the conference negotiations, Young restored the High Priority Projects (HPP) program at $30 million a year, a program which the Senate bill eliminated. HPP provides an opportunity for small and medium-sized tribes to compete for up to $1 million for projects.

Senator Mark Begich's office issued a press release noting the impact for Alaska:

The agreement includes $460 million in highway formula funding for Alaska in FY2013 and $464 million in FY2014 – in total $924 million for highways, roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects in Alaska. The amount is slightly lower than the totals from the Senate-passed bill. When funding for the Alaska Railroad and other transit projects is included, the bill invests over $1 billion in Alaska’s transportation infrastructure over two years.

The Begich announcement notes two additional amendments that survived:

• An expansion of the Denali Commission’s ability to accept funds from other federal agencies and the State of Alaska, something that will allow the independent federal agency dedicated to Alaska infrastructure to diversify its funding and allow it to depend less on year-to-year congressional appropriations.

• An amendment to allow van-pool providers to reinvest fares into purchasing more vehicles and expanding the number of commuters they can serve also survived.

“I’ve always said potholes are not partisan and the bipartisan work to complete this bill leads to a balanced agreement that will create jobs and move our economy forward,” Begich said. “Congressman Young did a great job on the House side while Senator Murkowski and I worked to ensure Alaska priorities from the Senate bill were included.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski also praised Young's work to preserve items important to Alaska:

Alaska is still a young state with high-priority needs, whether through our rural roads linking communities, the critical economic and geographic role played by the Alaska Railroad, or our Alaska Marine Highway connecting many communities unreachable otherwise. I worked diligently with my Senate colleagues on Capitol Hill to push our priorities –- and I am pleased that Alaska’s needs have been addressed on both sides by our delegation.

Alaska Railroad President and CEO Chris Aadnesen, whose corporation faced a massive reduction in federal transport funding, expressed gratitude in a Thursday announcement:

A great deal of thanks goes to Congressman Young and Senators Murkowski and Begich for their hard work to retain critical funding for the Alaska Railroad in the transportation bill ... The fact that we had Don Young, who is such a great fighter for Alaska and the railroad, on the conference committee was absolutely invaluable. His long-term relationships with many of the House and Senate conference committee members were critical to our success.

Contact Scott Woodham at swoodham(at)alaskadispatch.com