Legislature(1993 - 1994)
03/17/1993 08:50 AM FIN
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SENATE BILL NO. 82 An Act relating to the Dalton Highway. Co-chair Frank directed that SB 82 be brought on for discussion. He remarked that legislation relating to opening the Dalton Highway to public use had been before the legislature for a number of years. At the present time, a portion of the road is theoretically closed to public use although the closure is not enforced. Permits for travel on the road are issued to commercial or industrial users. The proposed bill would open the road to a terminus near the Arctic Ocean. The last few miles are on oil company land leased from the state. It is the intent to have the Dept. of Transportation and Public Facilities work with oil companies to develop an access route through those leases so that the public can travel all the way to the Arctic Ocean. That access route is not mandated, however. It is the intent of the sponsor to have the department exercise its authority to close the road during months of the year when it is determined to be unsafe due to cold weather. KEITH GERKEN, Deputy Commissioner, Dept. of Transportation and Public Facilities, came before committee, accompanied by JOHN HORN, Regional Director, Northern Region, Dept. of Transportation and Public Facilities. Mr. Gerken advised that the department has long supported opening the road. Opening it to the public would be consistent with state policy on all other routes. More practical considerations relate to the current insufficient amount of capital improvement on the route. The principal source of capital improvement moneys is federal highway dollars. Those dollars cannot be spent on a road that is not open to the public. Opening the northern half of the Dalton Highway will allow the department an opportunity to use federal moneys to maintain the road so that this extremely expensive asset does not further deteriorate. The department fiscal note is zero. Currently, commercial traffic on the road is what determines the amount of needed maintenance. Increased traffic projections from tourism and recreational use do not indicate that department costs will be impacted. For a number of years, the department has cooperated with the federal Bureau of Land Management on development opportunities along the route. The BLM is very interested and willing to work on a plan to make facilities available for camping, parking, scenic viewing, etc. In response to a question from Senator Kelly concerning availability of restaurants and gas stops along the highway, Mr. Horn said fuel, food, and lodging are available at the Yukon River, Cold Foot, and Deadhorse. While long distances lie between those locations, the distances are not beyond the gas tank capacity of most vehicles traveling the road. The longest stretch is slightly over 200 miles. As people begin to use the road, and commercial need for additional facilities arises, they will be built. But the need must first be developed. Senator Sharp advised that the Senate Transportation Committee was provided information indicating the BLM has a "pretty elaborate plan set up for waysides and campgrounds," once the road is opened and demand justifies development. Further discussion followed between Senator Kelly and Mr. Horn regarding ownership of existing fuel, food, and lodging facilities. Mr. Horn noted Native corporation, service company, and private ownership. Mr. Gerken voiced his understanding that land upon which facilities are located is leased from BLM on a long-term basis. Senator Rieger raised questions concerning state liability for the condition of the road and maintenance responsibilities. Has an action based on lack of maintenance ever been brought against the state? Mr. Gerken acknowledged that such actions had been brought. Courts generally "look at that as whether or not we're doing what we can with what we're given." The majority of the traffic on the road, both today and after it is opened, will continue to be commercial. State liability thus already exists. He acknowledged that a greater number of people traveling the road would increase already existing liability. Mr. Gerken told members that while the condition of the road is often described as primitive, it is not. The road is constructed to federal, secondary standards. While it is not paved, it is quite adequate in terms of width, alignment, and grade. It is acknowledged to have a few problems, and access to federal dollars for the northern end would help correct situations where grades should not be as steep as they currently are. Unless the weather is particularly bad, speed on the Dalton is not a problem. Truckers move quite quickly across it. Tourists will as well. The road is passable and safe. In terms of standards and maintenance, it is perhaps safer than the Taylor or Denali Highways. It is built to better standards. State liability should thus not change significantly. Senator Rieger next asked what the opening of the Dalton would mean in terms of the statewide ISTEA allocation. Mr. Gerken explained that the Dalton falls within the definition of core roads. It will thus have to compete against other major highways for available federal dollars. The state will not receive more federal highway funding because it has more road miles on which to spend it. The department is attempting to establish statewide priorities in terms of which routes need attention most. The Dalton would compete and may take funding from other projects. It will not impact borough allocations. Discussion followed between Senator Kelly and Mr. Horn regarding pipeline construction camps. Mr. Horn explained that most camps have been closed or co-located with the seven pump stations along the pipeline. The department also has six maintenance stations along the route. Further discussion followed between Senator Kelly and Mr. Horn concerning airstrips along the road. Senator Sharp voiced his understanding that the portion of the road presently closed to the public and ineligible for ISTEA money consists of approximately the last 200 miles. Mr. Horn advised that it is technically closed at Disaster Creek. Further discussion relating to past checkpoints followed. Mr. Horn acknowledged that there had been no checkpoint for the last two or three years. DOTPF never had enforcement authority along the road. Due to staffing cuts, enforcement by the Alaska State Troopers was rare. Essentially, anyone wishing to drive the road has done so. Further, commercial permits were easily obtained. In addition, recent statutes opened the area to mining development. Senator Sharp next raised a question about use of federal dollars versus general funds on the portion of the road to be opened. Mr. Horn advised of a recent $5 million project utilizing general funds. He said it was the first funded by general funds since 1984/85. The road requires resurfacing every three years. The $5 million was used to resurface "Deadhorse south about 53 miles." By raising the grade and narrowing the road to 32 feet, that portion of the road "essentially blows itself clean now." In the past, it required two people to control drifting during the winter. A steady, cyclical CIP budget for the road will reduce the cost of everyday maintenance. The road wears out in three years and maintenance costs increase. Mr. Horn attested to other points along the road where drifting is a problem. Mr. Horn commented that the road to slightly north of Cold Foot has been opened since 1983 with no major impact. The forecasted impact on the environment and predicted breakdowns and major accidents have not occurred. Commercial facilities will locate along the highway as need arises. Mr. Horn further attested to the fact that the farther one ventures from civilization, the more individuals help each other. If ISTEA funds are not going to be used on the northern portion of the Dalton, the department needs $100.0 a mile every four years to maintain an adequate, safe surface. That translates to approximately $5 million in general funds annually. Senator Kelly asked what the state is currently paying to maintain the northern portion of the Dalton. Mr. Horn answered that prior to the 35% cut, last year, the department spent approximately $7 million a year. The reduction funded maintenance at $4.3 million. That was inadequate, hence the $1.2 million supplemental and moneys from the Commissioner's "non-routine emergency maintenance fund." Since January, approximately half of the $2.5 cut has been added back. That maintains the road and the facilities needed to maintain the road. It does not include maintenance of airports along the route. COL. JOHN MURPHY, Director, Division of Alaska State Troopers, Dept. of Public Safety, next came before committee. Co-chair Frank voiced his understanding that the Dept. of Public Safety could meet increased demand for fish and wildlife and highway enforcement with the fiscal notes that accompanied the bill. The Co-chair then said that he did not totally agree with the level of the notes and asked that Col. Murphy speak to increases in the trooper component as well as fish and wildlife protection. Col. Murphy explained that funding anticipates a full-time trooper at seven mile and two troopers out of Fairbanks who would travel the highway on a rotation basis. Troopers do not currently conduct roving patrols along the Dalton, but a supervisor travels it. DOTPF has housing at seven mile. The department proposes to locate a trooper there as well. End, SFC-93, #39, Side 2 Begin, SFC-93, #41, Side 1 With increased traffic, there would be need for a trooper on the road twelve to sixteen hours a day. The department bases projected need on past haul road experience with commercial traffic. Addressing fish and wildlife protection needs, Col. Murphy advised that an enforcement officer would be based at Cold Foot. Enforcement personnel is currently stationed there, but the department intended to transfer the position this summer. If the road is opened, resulting hunting and fishing pressure would necessitate that the position remain at Cold Foot. A part-time position would also be needed to assist during the busy season, and an aircraft would be required for search and rescue as problem situations arise. First-year costs are substantial due to need for the aircraft and other equipment (a snow machine and four, four- wheel-drive vehicles). Costs drop dramatically the second year. Senator Sharp acknowledged the department's desire to reach adequate staffing levels but questioned whether SB 82 is the proper vehicle. He voiced his understanding that there are presently no troopers on the road, and he took exception to the proposal to go from "zero to four on the back of this legislation." The Senator questioned whether opening of the road would initially justify other than merely emergency response capability. The Department of Fish and Game has indicated no greater incidence of violation along the Dalton than other locations statewide. In fact there may be less because of the five-mile no hunting zones on either side of the road which permit only bow and arrow hunting. Senator Sharp suggested that the Department of Public Safety fiscal note reflects "overkill" in terms of funding. Senator Kelly asked if other highways in Alaska are unpatrolled. Col. Murphy answered that the Elliott Highway and some others are not patrolled "very often." The troopers do not patrol those areas unless called, or they patrol on a monthly cycle. Col. Murphy added that the department is not enforcing commercial vehicle regulations along the Dalton. If the road is open to the public and more private vehicles travel the Dalton, the department will need to work with commercial truckers to ensure that their equipment is safe. There is much more commercial traffic along the Dalton than on other infrequently patrolled highways. Senator Kelly and Co-chair Frank suggested that costs of commercial vehicle inspections should be covered by program receipts. Senator Sharp noted that the weigh station at Fox would be the proper site for vehicle safety inspections. Co-chair Frank acknowledged questions raised by Senator Lincoln when the bill was before the Senate Transportation Committee. He then directed attention to a packet of information (March 17, 1993, memo from Rick Solie to Senator Frank--copy on file in the SFC SB 82 file) which he explained attempts to address those concerns. RICK SOLIE, aide to Senator Frank, next came before committee. He enumerated seven questions raised by Senator Lincoln, read the brief response set forth in the memo, and pointed to attached, in-depth backup materials. Speaking to the oil industry's position on proposed opening of the road, Mr. Solie voiced his understanding that as long as the road is not opened "all the way to the Arctic Ocean," the position would be neutral. Language in the bill thus speaks to "a terminus near the Arctic Ocean." Oil company concern is that opening the road to the Ocean might jeopardize operational security. Mr. Solie next directed attention to correspondence from the Department of Fish and Game (included within the packet) indicating that there might be a positive impact from opening the road "because some of the caribou herds actually could use a little more harvest." It does not appear there will be an adverse effect from additional hunting. EDGAR BLATCHFORD, Commissioner, Department of Community and Regional Affairs, next came before committee. Co-chairman Frank voiced his understanding that the administration has requested the Commissioner to negotiate a settlement between the state and the Tanana Chiefs. The Commissioner explained that, last summer, several commissioners and the Attorney General met with representatives of TCC and the law firm representing the North Slope Borough. The state immediately dismissed the suggested creation of a federal/state commission to regulate ingress and egress out of the North Slope. Since that time, there have been additional discussions with TCC. The Commissioner explained that travel by both himself and TCC representatives to Washington, D.C., was unproductive because senior officials at the Bureau of Land Management were reluctant to recommend any action until after the November election. Exchange of correspondence with TCC is ongoing. The administration's understanding is that TCC will try to bring the other parties together, i.e. the North Slope Borough and villages, etc. Discussion continued regarding "how we can open the road." DARSIE BECK, Alaska Environmental Lobby, next came before committee. He voiced opposition to opening the highway, advising that it would substantially impact wildlife and the fragile eco-system of areas north of the Brooks Range. Hunting pressures, both legal and illegal, will increase, and off-road vehicular traffic will lead to serious erosion problems. There will also be increasing pressure to build new roads from the Dalton to distant points. The BLM's ambitious recreation plan will attract additional traffic and magnify negative impacts on the land and wildlife. Mr. Beck noted the following intent accompanying legislation that authorized construction of the Dalton Highway: It is the sense of the legislature that the construction of the highway will not impair natural wilderness adjacent to the highway, will not unreasonably interfere with subsistence hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering. Opening of the highway to public use would violate that intent. Senator Rieger pointed to earlier-mentioned correspondence from the Department of Fish and Game indicating that increased harvest would be good for the long-term health of the caribou herd. Mr. Beck disputed that statement. Co-chairman Frank noted references by Mr. Beck to off-road vehicular traffic. The Senator then voiced his understanding that the Dalton has protection against off- road use that no other state highway enjoys. The five-mile corridor on each side of the highway is a substantial prohibition. Co-chairman Frank voiced surprise that the environmental community would object to "just letting people drive a road." Mr. Beck acknowledged statutory protection. He further noted testimony that there is little or no enforcement along the road. Co-chairman Frank concurred that there may be violations by a small number of people. He voiced concern, however, that the stand taken by the environmental lobby indicates that "The people of Alaska won't follow the law." Law enforcement in any state is based upon voluntary compliance. Mr. Beck advised that the environmental community is opposed to the opening on the philosophical grounds that it "increases use of resources that don't need to be used right now." The environmental community supports tourism, but this appears to be irresponsible tourism. Senator Rieger posed questions regarding penalties associated with off-road violations along the road, and suggested that if the fine is minor, perhaps the committee should review the penalties. Co-chairman Frank predicted that most tourists would either fly to the North Slope or travel via tour bus. He then voiced his belief that it was philosophically wrong for a portion of the road, constructed with public funds, to be closed to the public. CHIP THOMA next came before committee, advising of his experience as a truck driver on the Dalton during the winters of 1974, 75, and 76. He said that wind-driven drifts and white-out conditions prevail much of the time. He voiced his belief that the state should not have agreed to take over the road. It should have remained a private road maintained by the oil companies. Mr. Thoma suggested that opening the road would provide "a whole new moose highway" for residents of Fairbanks. He then voiced support for efforts by the Tanana Chiefs and North Slope Borough to close the road. Co-chairman Frank took exception to Mr. Thoma's comment that the purpose of the proposed bill was to expand access for Fairbanks moose hunters. He reiterated that the impetus behind the bill is philosophical: A public road maintained with public dollars should be opened to the public. There is no policy reason for keeping the Dalton closed "half way up." No overriding problems have arisen as a result of having it open as far as it is now. The people of Alaska should have the opportunity to drive a road that was paid for and is maintained by public dollars. The Co-chairman further advised that he had worked with the departments of Fish and Game, Public Safety, and Transportation and Public Facilities to address legitimate concerns. Mr. Thoma said that he was not asserting that ulterior motives were involved. He stressed that from October 1 to April 1 there is no tourist value to the road. The issue of concern is safety. The reason for the road is to drive goods and services to Prudhoe Bay. Co-chairman Frank commented that departments charged with responsibility along the road do not feel there is undue risk. The commissioner has authority to close the road if conditions are unsafe. The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has general authority to open and close any road for safety reasons. KEITH GERKEN, Deputy Commissioner, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, again came before committee. He concurred in comments by the Co-chairman regarding authority to open and close roads. The department has, in the past, issued notices of closure to commercial traffic. In response to a question from Senator Kelly regarding inclusion of specific language to that effect within the bill, Co-chairman Frank said that he did not want the legislature to arbitrarily set times for openings and closing. The Co-chairman announced that SB 82 would be HELD in committee for additional work on the fiscal notes. Discussion followed between Senator Kelly and Co-chairman Frank regarding the approach to fiscal note work. The Co- chairman advised that he did not intend to zero the notes.