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Federal-state funding helps Yukon repair, maintain Alaska Highway

Permafrost thaw often creates cracks along the shoulders of the Alaska Highway, like these on a stretch of the road in the Yukon.
Yukon Territory
Permafrost thaw often creates cracks along the shoulders of the Alaska Highway, like these on a stretch of the road in the Yukon.

Deal to use Infrastructure funding to fix permafrost damage 'example of international cooperation that works’

The U.S. Department of Transportation is contributing $25 million to help the Yukon Territory fix damage caused by thawing permafrost along a stretch of the Alaska Highway on that side of the border.

The $31 million federal-state funding package will help pay for permafrost-thawing damage along a stretch of the Alaska and Shakwak Highways in Yukon Territory.
Yukon Territory
The $31 million federal-state funding package will help pay to repair permafrost-thawing damage and other improvements along a stretch of the Alaska and Shakwak Highways in Yukon Territory.

The $25 million grant is funded through the federal 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. It’ll be used to pay for repairs on portions of the Alcan between the U.S.-Canada border and Destruction Bay, Yukon Territory, that’s been badly damaged by thawing permafrost beneath the roadbed.

“We’ve got a section of this highway that is in pretty critical need, so we’re really pleased about this grant,” says Shannon McCarthy, an Alaska Department of Transportation spokesperson.

McCarthy says the federal grant will be included in a $31 million package that the state of Alaska is providing to the territory under the terms of a deal signed in February by Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy and Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai.

“So this is definitely an example of international cooperation that works really well for both of our countries,” she said.

An extreme case of permafrost-thawing damage on a road in eastern Alaska.
KUAC file photo
An extreme case of permafrost-thawing damage on a road in eastern Alaska.

The State of Alaska will contribute $6 million from DOT’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Program to the package, McCarthy said Monday. The state and federal funding will be used to help repair and rebuild sections along a 128-mile stretch of the Alcan. She says the work is needed to keep Alaska’s only highway link to the continental United States operational.

“It’s so critical that we maintain a road connection between Alaska and the Lower 48,” she said.

A DOT news release says the document signed by the two leaders outlines collaborative efforts by the state and territorial governments to improve roadway maintenance, infrastructure upgrades and emergency preparedness.

For Yukoners, the money was a long time coming.

Road improvements on the Shakwak Highway and the Alaska Highway west of Haines Junction has been funded largely through the terms of the U.S.-Canada 1977 Shakwak Agreement.
Yukon Territory
Road repairs and improvements on the Shakwak Highway and the Alaska Highway west of Haines Junction has been funded largely through the terms of the U.S.-Canada 1977 Shakwak Agreement.

The Alaska Highway was built by the U.S. Army in 1942, and the 1977 Shakwak Agreement between the U.S. and Canada required the United States to contribute to maintenance costs on the last stretch of the Alcan in Canada, as well as the Haines Highway. That portion connects the city of Haines to the Alaskan Interior via the Alaska Highway.

The so-called Shakwak Corridor, also called the Shakwak Highway, is named after a Tlingit term meaning “in the mountains.”

But that U.S. funding stream dried out in 2009. And 10 years later, Yukon Transportation Minister Richard Mostyn told KHNS Radio News in Haines that the Yukon territorial government was struggling to pay for the maintenance.

“In 2016-17, we spent $10.8 million on the Shakwak,” he said. “In 2017-18, it was down to $6.3 (million). In 2018-19, it’s down to $2.3 (million). And now it’s done.”

Mosstyn said in that 2019 report that the United States wasn’t fulfilling its obligations set forth in the agreement.

“The pledge was to upgrade the highway to a certain grade,” he said. “The U.S. federal government was going to upgrade the road surface to a certain standard. And it remains unfinished.”

The Yukon government has posted information on how motorists can navigate through areas where the roadway has been damaged by thawing permafrost.

A Yukon territorial government news release issued in April says now that U.S. funding is assured, improvement work on the Shakwak portion of the Alaska Highway will begin next year and be completed in 2027.

Editor's note1: Former KHNS reporter Claire Stremple contributed to this story.

Editor's note2 : Click hereto find out more about the Yukon's efforts to restore the Shakwak Corridor.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.