Infrastructure investment is key to getting Alaska’s economy back on track

By Bill Walker and Heidi Drygas
Anchorage Daily News, November 23, 2021

The only way to rebuild Alaska is to make big strategic investments in workers who have been hammered by the pandemic, infrastructure that has been neglected for decades, and programs that will create a bright future for our state.

Recently, Alaska’s Congressional Delegation played a pivotal role in passing landmark legislation that advances toward all of these goals. Congressman Don Young, Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan all deserve tremendous credit for the role they played in shaping the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill for the benefit of all Alaskans, with Senator Murkowski being one of the driving forces behind its passage.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this bill. A few examples: we will receive $3.5 billion in federal highway funding, $1 billion for essential ferry service to rural communities, $250 million for new harbor construction, $73 million for the construction of new ferries for Alaska as the Alaska Marine Highway System is now eligible for future federal highway funding for operation and repair, and significant investments in rural broadband access.

Thousands of jobs will be created by the federal investment in our roads, highways, ferries, ports and harbors, and Internet connectivity systems, which will all enable future economic growth.

Despite all this good news that truly makes strides toward opening Alaska for business, Governor Mike Dunleavy was conspicuously silent as this historic bill advanced through the legislative process and even made partisan attacks against the White House rather than advocating for more provisions that would help rebuild our state. While some of these funds are specifically designated for Alaska, others we must compete for. As we read national articles describing the excitement from other governors preparing to aggressively compete for some of these infrastructure dollars for their respective states, we haven’t even seen an acknowledgement from Governor Dunleavy about the Infrastructure Bill’s unprecedented opportunity for Alaska.

This fits a frustrating pattern where our governor has favored partisan pandering to his base rather than prioritizing policies that will benefit Alaskans. Since Dunleavy took office, Alaska has lost jobs and population every year, and our economy is recovering from COVID slower than nearly any other state. Rather than work with the business community to ensure fiscal stability and keep the virus under control, Dunleavy has impeded vaccination efforts, costing Alaska businesses tens of millions of dollars in revenue.

Further, Dunleavy stopped distributing a $300-per-week bonus benefit provided by the federal government to Alaskans to conform to partisan rhetoric that unemployment benefits were causing a labor shortage. His actions cost Alaskans thousands of dollars at a time they needed it most, prevented millions of federal dollars from flowing into our economy, and failed to generate job growth.

We need an administration that sees beyond politics and works with both local businesses and local governments, as well as our federal government, to support job creation and economic growth. An administration that recognizes the most important economic development strategy is to make Alaska a great place to live, work, and raise a family. We need to attract and retain high-earning workers and their families by ensuring we have good schools, safe streets, affordable housing and child care, short commutes, and unparalleled recreation opportunities. We’re proud of our track record of creating career pathways for Alaskans as Governor and Commissioner of Labor. Together, we successfully awarded more than $20 million in competitive federal grants to boost workforce development, expanded registered apprenticeship in Alaska, and convened a summit of industry leaders, employers, organized labor representatives, and education and training partners at the forefront of major upcoming projects. Alaska is uniquely positioned to grow and prosper. Between the federal dollars flowing into the state that encourages business development, our numerous and diverse natural resources, and incredible growth opportunities ranging from tourism to mariculture, Alaska has limitless potential. With a Governor and Lieutenant Governor who focus on job growth over political talking points, we can reverse the years of job losses and get Alaska growing again.

Bill Walker served as the 11th governor of Alaska from 2014-2018. He lives in Anchorage with his wife, Donna. He is a candidate for governor in 2022.

Heidi Drygas served as the commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development under Gov. Walker from 2014-2018. She lives in Juneau with her husband Kevin and daughter Olive. She is a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2022.