As a famous local resident has said, you can see Russia to the West and Canada to the East. This makes Alaska the most northerly US state. It has several unique claims to fame in that it has the largest surface area but the smallest number of people, most of whom live in the immediate area called the Anchorage metropolitan area. If you measure the coastline, it is longer than the coastline of all the other states combined. So when you take the overview, most of the land is uninhabited wilderness that no one would care about but for the oil and minerals. No matter how unfriendly the weather, people go there for the money. As to exploitation rights, the US Federal Government owns about 65% of all the land. The rest is managed by agencies, both commercial and native, supposedly protecting the environment or developing it for the benefit of local citizens, with only about 1% of the land in private ownership.
The transport system
For obvious reasons, this means the larger part of Alaska is not accessible by public road. With such a vast amount of land, much remains wilderness, there is only 12,800 miles of public roads connecting the population centers. Ironically, Juneau, the state capital, cannot be accessed by road. Over the years, this has sparked continuing debate whether the capital should be relocated. So far, tradition has prevailed. The other feature of note is the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel which is the longest road and rail tunnel in North America. Because of the distances involved and the weight of the minerals extracted, the 482 miles of rail track remains more economically important than the roads. This is despite one further oddity. The rail track does not connect to either Canada or any of the US states. The final links in the chain into and out of the state remain marine and air for most purposes. The road links are only driven by truckers and tourists with great patience and endurance. Of course, when the snow comes, the dogsleds emerge among traditionalists, while ATVs and snowmobiles transport the newbies around. Only the experienced locals and those trained in survival go into the northern reaches of Alaska during the winter months.
The population of 627,000 has managed to import and register 623,000 automobiles and 330,000 light trucks. Almost 70% of workers use their personal transport to commute to and from work alone, 13% share cars and trucks, 7% walk and 3% use public transport. The remainder either use the water or work from home. All US states collect crash data. They use this information to help plan the development of the road system and to target particular stretches of road in need of repair. Unfortunately, this does not work so well in Alaska. It has a low tax base and its budget must be stretched to cover many essential services. Road building and maintenance does not have a high priority. The last year for which there are statistics is 2009 which shows 5,330 injured and 64 killed on the roads. On average, there were 1.5 crashes every hour. The number of reported crashes is 11% higher than in 2008. Sadly, the main reason for this is speed. Although alcohol and drugs were a relevant factor in 7% of all crashes, speed was the reason for 14% of the crashes and 40% of the fatalities. In the countryside, you can drive for hours and not see another vehicle. That’s relatively safe. Only 22 crashes involved ATVs or snowmobiles. No one died using dogsleds. Three-quarters of all crashes occurred in urban areas, mostly at intersections. Almost 60% of all crashes occurred in Anchorage. It’s not surprising that most accidents occur where most people live close together.
Perhaps because of the weather, the most popular vehicle for people to buy in Alaska has consistently been the Ford full-size pickup. In the good old days, the popularity of the pickup reflected the importance of farming. But these trucks are no longer used for work, they are a lifestyle choice for everyday use. The redesign to produce the F-150 in 2013 simply reinforces the popularity of this make and model, not just in Alaska, but in 21 other states as well.
Historically, Alaska used to be very important to the US economy. For example, in 1988 it produced 738 million barrels of crude oil. At the time, that represented about 25% of the oil produced on US soil. By 2012, the percentage had dropped to about 8% of US crude production. This has not been without controversy with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System being the primary route for oil to leave the state. Although about 3% of Alaska’s production was exported between 1996 and 2004, no Alaskan oil has been exported since 2004. Production has been exclusive to the rest of the US. So with mining and logging also contracting, the general need for a major road infrastructure has been reduced. The unemployment rate has been rising through 2013 and now stands about 6.5%. This reflects a delicate balance. So long as extraction costs remain low, the Alaskan economy can rely on nonagricultural employment for its citizens to earn a living. But costs have been rising and even though new deposits have been discovered, the lack of a transport infrastructure changes the calculation. People cannot drive to these places. They have to be flown or, where possible, shipped in. Moving the crude oil and minerals is also challenging without rail or access for ocean-going vessels. In the medium term, Alaska is going to find it difficult to maintain employment unless money is invested in more roads and better transport links to Canada and the US. Although basic necessities (and some luxuries) come in to feed and clothe the population, export opportunities are limited. Until that changes, corporations are not going to build factories in Alaska.
Do You Know that…
1. Alaska has the largest amount of land and the smallest population in America.
2. Only 1% of the land is in private ownership.
3. Alaska has the smallest number of public roads of any US state.
4. On average there are 1.5 crashes every hour.
5. The amount of crude oil produced in Alaska has been dropping since 1988.
6. Your driver’s license can be suspended if you do not pay the damages awarded by a court.
7. If you are refused insurance cover, you have a right to find out why.
8. People can drive off-highway without a test if they live in a rural community.
9. Not all cities have an attorney in the State Bar referral service.
10. Alaska is a zero tolerance state and anyone under the age of 21 will be convicted if there is any alcohol in their blood.