Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 6:39 PM on Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Proposed road to Nome sparks debate in Anchorage

By Sean Manget
Morris News service - Alaska

Last week in Anchorage, the debate over the proposed road from Manley Hot Springs to Nome raged yet again, with people on both sides stating their views and occasionally erupting into impassioned rants.

Proponents and opponents clashed over issues as broad as whether the road, slated to cost between $2.3 billion and $2.7 billion, should be built at all. But even supporters were divided over which of several proposed routes should be developed, and whether it should be a roadway or a railroad.

The price tag shocked Alaskans when it was unveiled in a report by engineering firm Dowl HKM early last year. But the document also lays out a bevy of benefits that might come to the region if the 500-mile road was built, largely running parallel to the Yukon River if the favored route is undertaken.

Mines along and near the passage, including those in Ambler, Donlin Creek and Illinois Creek, along with 10 placer mines, would create 1,590 jobs, according to data the report says came from 2009 estimates gathered by firm Northern Economics.

The report says many of these jobs, according to data collected from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development in 2009, would likely pay somewhere around $7,000 per month.

Moments before the meeting began Feb. 10 at Romig Middle School in Anchorage, retired engineer and former Nome resident Bill Johnson said he would prefer the railroad option because with an abundance of ore deposits in the area, the rail would offer the ability to haul mass quantities of minerals more easily than the road.

"With a railroad going in there, and if we can connect up to the Canadian railroad, we'll be able to move our resources to market," Johnson said. "Maybe my kids will be able to work in the state like I have."

Johnson also fears that a roadway will bring an influx of hunters who would wreak havoc on the local caribou population. This fear has materialized in the discussions over other rural transportation projects, including a road from Galbraith Lake to Umiat.

Roger McCarty, who now lives in Anchorage but resided in Ruby until nearly five years ago, supports the road because he believes it will aid in resource extraction efforts and lower the cost of necessities like fuel and groceries.

The report forecasts a savings of nearly $1.1 million in annual fuel costs, and a savings of more than $18 million in annual cargo and bypass mail expenditure.

McCarty said airfare is already expensive enough, and with the U.S. Senate debating ending subsidies to air carriers operating in 44 communities statewide as part of a grander effort to cut federal spending, the road will ensure that residents can continue to get what they need without having to pay exorbitant fees.

In front of a crowd of nearly 40 people, Tom Middendorf of Dowl HKM laid out the advantages of the chosen route.

It brings greater access to members of the community than the other route that was in the running, but it has a lower mineral value than the other route, the report says.

It also is more costly: The other route, which would span 450 miles, is estimated to cost $2.1 billion.

Joe Jackson, one of the event's attendees, supported the road in principle but told Middendorf during the meeting that he would prefer the less expensive route because it allows more access to mining deposits.

Jackson said he would have preferred to have representatives of the mining industry at the meeting since, in his view, mining companies are the primary beneficiaries of the road.

Heated opposition to the road arose from multiple attendees, including one woman who said cultures in the area were "stressed" as it was and didn't need to have outsiders flooding into their villages via the road.

"Alcoholism and drug abuse continue to plague our families, our villages and our region. You read daily in the newspapers about the devastation they leave in their wake," said Carolyn Schubert, another attendee of the meeting who lives in Council during the summer.

"I'd be naive to think that a road through an urban area would come close to helping to address these problems," she said.

Schubert fears that employment to build the road would not go to locals, and said she has witnessed previous projects like this one in which family and associates of construction contractors, and not residents of the communities, got the jobs.

She shared the concerns of many others regarding outsiders and "intruders" utilizing the road, and said she doubts state troopers will be adequately provided to stave off criminals.

Sean Manget is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.