Today’s ADN commentary regarding the Ambler road project, linked below, continues the drumbeat effort to justify public spending on a road to a mine similar to the debate over the use of the public highways for the Kinross gold mine development near Tok, and construction of the West Susitna Access for mineral development not even permitted.
While I don’t have a strong opinion on whether a road to Ambler is justified and its impacts appropriately mitigated, I am concerned that the option for more railroad development is not being fully considered in a short-term focus on transferring the risk of development from industrial developers to the public, keeping our road construction companies well funded, leveraging our federal Highway funds for industrial development, and perhaps opening up more areas for urban hunters.
While roads might seem to be the most immediate and cost-effective solution for transportation, particularly when the project only has to pay for the state’s costs vs. total federal subsidized costs, it’s worth noting the considerable advantages railroads offer compared to building roads for isolated special-purpose industrial developments such as the Ambler, Kinross and West Susitna projects. The 2016 State Rail Road Plan, a publicly vetted blueprint for our State’s potential railway development, is a testament to this. Alaskans should reacquaint themselves with this document and champion its vision as we debate the investment of public funds for mining infrastructure development. (See the link below.)
- Cost-Effective in the Long Run: Despite the initial higher cost, railways, in the long run, promise lower maintenance costs.
- Eco-Friendly: Railways offer substantial savings in fuel and a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
- Weather Resilient: Trains are less susceptible to adverse weather conditions compared to road transport.
- Alleviating Road Congestion: Railways can reduce the cost and congestion on roads, offering a more efficient mode of transport for both industrial freight and passengers.
With its vast mineral resources, Alaska has always been a subject of considerable interest for mineral developers and the challenge of infrastructure required to access the resources. Over the last 120 years, about 18 railroads were constructed in Alaska in nearly every corner of the State with private financing, including the more familiar Copper River and NW Railroad (CRNWRR), Alaska Central Railroad (Seward), Tanana Valley Railroad (Fairbanks).
Following gold discoveries in Fairbank and interior growth, the federal government approved a plan to buy the CRNWRR in what would have been a Cordova to Fairbanks route. Politics in the Wilson administration changed that, and Anchorage was born when the Seward to Fairbanks route was selected and constructed by combining the Central and Tanana routes. Few remember that Anchorage was connected only by railroad to Fairbanks for decades until WWII, and the now familiar Parks highway was not completed until the early 70s.
Railroads have been the primary solution for long-distance, long-term, heavy industrial logistics for our State and the rest of the county. The benefits in operating costs and emissions are even more valuable today. Railroads continue to be a vital but isolated infrastructure for our State. They deserve more consideration as we look towards new infrastructure development and our future as a growing and prosperous northern Arctic economy with enhanced connections with Canada and the lower 48.
Case in Point: The Tok to Fairbanks Highway Debate
The ongoing discussion around upgrading the highway from Tok to Fairbanks for the Kinross gold mine is emblematic of this issue. A rail extension promises less environmental impact and lower cost of hauling, but it also demands a long-term commitment. Unfortunately, both the developer and the State seem to support a road upgrade, subsidizing the mine using public funds. What Alaska stands to lose in this transaction is monetary and strategic, as a potential rail connection to Canada and the lower 48 remains stalled.
Revisiting the 2016 State Rail Road Plan
The State’s ‘ roads to resources’ plan focuses on road building and avoiding long-term capital investments by developers, with the public assuming all the risk of infrastructure development and upgrades.
Alaskans might be well served to revisit our commitment to responsible and long-term infrastructure development at this juncture. The challenges posed by climate change and the environmental impacts of our decisions cannot be ignored. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to ensure that our State’s development is sustainable and visionary.
1/7/2024 A better alternative to the Ambler Road by Carl Benson. (Benefits to a railroad route to the ocean.)
Alaska 2013 Railroad Plan Open House Presentation– Summary of benefits of rail vs. other modes of transportation.
ADN 9/11/2023 Commentary – Ambler Access Project is more than a road by Chuck Kopp
AK News Source July 2020: From dream to reality: Proposed railway would connect Alaska to the rest of the continent by rail.