Wrangell Sentinel: Murkowski sees opportunities for Wrangell in infrastructure funding

Though its passage is uncertain amid partisan battles in Congress and even disagreements among the majority-holding Democrats, the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill could be an opportunity for federal help with costly improvements to Wrangell's water system.

However, all communities in Alaska "have to be honest in regard to timing," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who visited Wrangell last weekend. In addition to waiting on Congress to decide on the legislation, "we know what it means to bring a (big) project online," the state's senior U.S. senator said.

Work funded nationwide under the legislation could easily stretch into 2022, 2023 or beyond, she said.

The Senate approved the measure in August, with a House vote anticipated later this month, though the bill is politically linked to a much larger Democrat-led spending package that lacks bipartisan support.

Aside from waiting for Congress to take action and for federal departments to administer the funds, "there is a level of enthusiasm for what this can bring," Murkowski said of the measure that would fund water, highway, bridge, airport, port and other projects.

"Here in Wrangell, you've got a dam that has been designated as the second-most hazardous dam in the whole state," the senator said in an interview Saturday.

Rebuilding the two reservoirs has been estimated at around $50 million, far beyond Wrangell's financial ability without significant state or federal assistance. The original lower crib dam was constructed in 1900 and the upper crib dam was built in 1935, though several upgrades have been added over the years, according to a 2018 report to the borough assembly.

A 2015 state report said the reservoir dams are stable, but at risk of failure "during a substantive seismic event."

Murkowski said the borough should have engineering studies and cost estimates ready should the infrastructure legislation pass and grants later open up.

In addition to the reservoirs, Wrangell's water treatment plant needs a system upgrade or replacement to better clean the water before piping it throughout town. That project was last estimated at $10 million, though the borough has federal grant funds to cover most of the cost.

The senator said harbor work could be another opportunity for the community in the infrastructure bill.

A provision of the bill directs up to $250 million for "remote" harbors, such as Wrangell, that lack rail or road access to another port. "It's their own pool of money," Murkowski said.

A more immediate federal concern in Wrangell is the U.S. Census, which showed the community lost about 10% of its population between 2010 and 2020, dropping by 242 people.

Multiple federal and state financial aid programs are based on population, adding importance for an accurate count. Borough officials last month said they disagree with the count and would investigate the Census numbers, looking for evidence of errors and whether Wrangell can challenge the numbers.

"It is very difficult" to appeal a Census, Murkowski cautioned. "We have to demonstrate it (the count) has been so egregious that it makes a substantial impact" to the community.

The senator said her office would work with Wrangell to determine what options might be available to contest the Census numbers.


By:  Larry Persily
Source: Wrangell Sentinel