News from Patrick Flynn

How we go nowhere

An acquaintance who resides well north of my hometown once observed that the difference between Fairbanks and Anchorage is that everybody from Fairbanks has been to Anchorage.  Point well taken – many Southcentral Alaskans never have, or take, the opportunity to experience other parts of our great state.  I consider myself fortunate that various aspects of my work have afforded me the opportunity to spend a fair amount of time in Southeast and Interior Alaska, and a little time in Southwest and Northwest Alaska.  Never been to Barrow, but I digress.

I like Fairbanks and enjoy reading their local paper, the News-Miner.  In doing so recently I came across an article about yet another vehicle breaking through the ice while crossing the Chena River near Pike’s Landing, which seems to happen every winter.  In explaining that the ice road is not the state’s responsibility DOT‘s northern region maintenance & operations director, Howard Thies, offered the following:

“We are the Department of Highways, Aviation and Public Facilities; there’s no rivers in there.  It’s not our problem.”

Recognizing the context of Mr. Thies’ statement I will concede his main point, that the ice road is not DOT’s responsibility, is correct.  Speaking more broadly, that statement struck me as an entirely too accurate description of DOT’s culture.  Note that it completely ignores non-motorized transit, mass transit, snow machines, ATV’s and even ferries, which are part of DOT as the Alaska Marine Highway (I can only imagine what my Southeast friends would say)!  There are plenty of good, thoughtful people working at DOT but, from many outsiders’ perspectives, all their agency seems to care about is roads, some airports and some buildings.  And it’s not unheard of for other transportation-related entities to get crosswise with their cousins at DOT; here’s a little story to illustrate another view.

In October of 2006 I was in Fairbanks for, among other things, a railroad board of directors meeting.  The then-former and now-current chairman, John Binkley, came by to visit and we had the opportunity to chat in the lobby during the board’s executive session.  As you may recall, Mr. Binkley had recently placed second in the Republican gubernatorial primary and was helping the Republican nominee, Sarah Palin, but also had supported the Democratic nominee, Tony Knowles, in the past.  Given that context, I asked if he had thought about what role he might want to play in the next administration; he demurred.  I pressed a bit further and noted his previous service as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, would he be interested in the job of Commissioner of the Department of Revenue?  No, he said, his real interest was transportation.  Incredulously I asked, “You’d consider running DOT?”  Mr. Binkley looked at me, thought carefully, and replied, “DOT is a mature bureaucracy.”  It’s no wonder people think so highly of him; that may have been the most diplomatic comment I’ve ever heard.

My point is this – roads, airports and buildings are important but if that’s all we focus on then we fail to serve the needs of thousands of Alaskans who don’t use a car or an airplane every day.  We owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to think about how our transportation planning can serve the needs of those who ride a bus or a bike, those who walk instead of drive and those who use some other conveyance.  This was part of the reason that I pushed, successfully, for a change that allows AMATS to allocate between 10 and 20 percent of its funding to transportation enhancements (like trails), up from the previous hard cap of 10%.

That’s enough for now, but rest assured I’ll continue to ask how proposed transportation projects account for needs beyond highways.  And if you haven’t been, please consider a visit to Fairbanks, Alaska’s “Golden Heart City.”



This contribution was made on Sunday, 28. December 2008 at 08:00 and was published under the category Transportation. You can follow comments on this entry through the RSS-Feed.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Patrick,

    I AGREE!

    We do need to do more for transportation in regards to those folks who do not drive. I do not know if you have seen the gentleman driving his wheel chair down the main roads. He would much rather drive his wheel chair on a safe trail or sidewalk. I spoke with him about it before. What about those who need walkers, etc…Snow is not removed from the sidewalks timely. We need to do more for the folks who do not use the traditional forms of transit. More money should be put into bus routes, safe trails, etc… I enjoyed living in Germany for six years. The public transportation was awesome. Old and young riding their bikes all sorts of places. The public transportation systems were at their destinations on time. Great transfer ability. Something I believe our system lacks!

    We need to do more for the elderly trying to get around this City. My mother-in-law had a heck of a time. They expected her to walk pretty far to get on the bus. The road is icy and there are no side walks. Then they wanted her to go to the main bus station to do a test to see if she qualified for the accessible bus program. We need to do more.


    Comment: Jillanne Inglis – 02. January 2009 @ 5:08 pm

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