Lisa Murkowski

Comments on the Senate Highway Bill - May 16, 2005

Lisa Murkowski
May 16, 2005— U.S. Senate, Washington, DC
Congressional floor speech
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Senator Lisa Murkowski made the following comments on the need to pass the highway reauthorization bill, H.R. 3.

I think I speak for all my constituents when I urge this body to move forward on the highway bill. Every State needs it, but truly I believe none need it more than my State of Alaska.

For most of us traveling from one place to another, it means asking yourself whether you walk, drive, take a bus, take a train, or an airplane. That is life in the 21st century. But in much of Alaska, Americans are still facing issues that are similar to what we faced in the 19th century. In much of Alaska, whether you drive is not a question without meaning. Instead, the question is, what time of year is it? Is it the time of year I will be using a snowmobile or going by boat?

…The highway bill and the highway trust fund which supports it exist for one reason: because Congress recognized that reliable transportation is critical to our national well-being and to the well-being of our individual citizens. This is no less true in the farthest, most remote parts of Alaska than it is in the center of Manhattan. That is why this bill contains provisions to allow the Denali Commission to construct roads between remote communities in Alaska.

This provision is based on a bill I had proposed in 2003 which would streamline the process of bringing Alaska's transportation system into the modern age. The same provision, as amended by the Senate action last year, will also help improve roads within Alaska's many Native villages, some of which still have only the roughest of trails from one part of town to another.

Frankly, the authorization in the bill for this purpose is simply not enough because Alaska has so many years of neglect to catch up on. I am sensitive, however, to the fiscal realities, and I am deeply grateful for the support of those who have helped us get this far. We must recognize this is not just an investment in Alaska today, but it is an investment in Alaska's tomorrow.

For the record, I would also prefer to have a separate system and significantly more money dedicated to our Native village transportation needs. They have been badly neglected. In fact, they have been shamefully neglected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs reservation roads system which is supposed to provide funding for Native American needs. Alaska Native villages have been ignored, their road miles have been uncounted, and money has been funneled into other areas that already have sophisticated road systems.

[In much of Alaska] it is literally impossible to build roads between some communities, even in long-settled areas like in southeastern Alaska where I was born, where a combination of rugged terrain and the separation of the islands have made other solutions necessary. One solution for the area in the southeast was the establishment of the Alaska Marine Highway System, which builds on a core fleet of large oceangoing vessels in service as ferries. It is the only highway possible between communities such as Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell, Sitka, Juneau, our State capital, and many other smaller communities. It is part of the National Highway System.

If the definition of a highway is a facility used by trucks and cars moving from one community to another, this is, indeed, a highway. In fact, it is one that is considerably less expensive than other options such as tunneling, like we have up in Boston, the ‘Big Dig,’ or the combination of bridges and tunnels we see around here.

The last highway bill, contained provisions to fund ferries and ferry terminals in addition to funding received through the National Highway System. I am pleased to say that this bill does as well. In fact, ferry system assistance in this bill is even broader and will help even more States operating ferry systems to do a better job for their citizens.

…The finance portion of the bill includes provisions based on two bills which I have previously offered. One of these provisions corrects an inequity imposed on air passengers who live in rural areas where, again, they are unconnected by road and they are forced when they are traveling to fly to a larger airport where they can catch a plane to get somewhere, to reach their final destination. All passengers currently pay a segment fee for air travel, but these rural residents I am talking about are basically forced to pay twice, while passengers who live within driving distance of a larger airport only pay once.

The second measure which I just referenced affects seaplane operators who are not using FAA facilities but currently must pay excise taxes and fees intended solely to support such facilities. This is also an inequity, and my measure will ensure that only those receiving benefits are asked to pay for them.

In addition, it is my understanding that the committee has also included a measure intended to ensure that taxes and fees intended for aircraft carrying passengers from point to point is not incorrectly applied to flight-seeing operations. Senator Inouye has taken the lead on this matter, but it is worth noting that it has significant support among my constituents in Alaska, and I am pleased to see it included.

Finally, let me note that I understand that the Commerce Committee title includes my proposal to establish State grants for motorcycle rider education. As my colleagues may be aware, motorcycle ridership is increasing all the time, and with it the number of motorcycle accidents has also been rising, particularly among the new riders. It is not necessarily the young riders but riders of any age. It is the latter that my proposal addresses. I believe firmly that the best way to prevent injuries is to prevent accidents, and training is the only way to accomplish that goal.

I have worked closely with the Motorcycle Riders Foundation and State motorcycle education administrators to develop this proposal. All too often, we will see new riders, both young and old, simply climb on and hope that they are going to learn by experience. Better training has been shown to drastically reduce the number of accidents suffered by new riders during the critical period in which their learning curve is the steepest and they are most at risk.

From the national perspective, this highway bill is a good bill. It is not perfect, but few things are. I would prefer to see more streamlining and permitting processes for highway projects. I would like to see more flexibility for States. I would like to see a bill with the funding level that we approved last year. The leaders of each one of our key committees have done yeoman's work--and again, I want to commend the chairman--on phenomenally difficult issues. I believe at the end of the day we have before us a good bill, the best bill possible. I pledge my support for it and urge my colleagues to do the same.