Yukon Territory says the US is on the hook for Alaska Highway upgrades

The stretch of the Alaska Highway that connects the Interior to the panhandle is called Shakwak, or the Shakwak Highway. (Wikimedia image)

The stretch of the Alaska Highway that connects the Interior to the panhandle is called Shakwak, or the Shakwak Highway. That’s Tlingit for “between the mountains.” It starts in Haines and goes north through the Yukon Territory. Parts of this vital link are degrading and the Yukon government says the United States should foot the bill.

There’s a long-standing international agreement between the United States and Canada to maintain Shakwak. The U.S. built it after the bombing of Pearl Harbor as a strategic link between Alaska and the contiguous United States. Canada took over maintenance of the sections that run through their territory after WWII.

Experts estimate U.S citizens make up 85% of the traffic. In the late 1970s, the road needed work. The United States agreed to pay to upgrade in the Shakwak agreement.

“The 1977 Shakwak Agreement obligated the United States to reconstruct the highway and for Canada to maintain it,” explained Alaska Department of Transportation’s Aurah Landau. “So most of the United States obligations are completed.”

But the United States didn’t completely finish the upgrade. There are about 100 miles between Beaver Creek in the Yukon and the Alaska border that are problematic.

“The area has permafrost and back in the 70s through the 80s we thought that the area would be stabilizing, but due to thawing conditions the ground has become even more unstable. So that’s an area that has not been able to be paved yet and if it were to be paved the paving wouldn’t last very long,” Landau said.

Unstable conditions due to permafrost delayed the work and now the climate is warmer and more dynamic than ever. Federal funding for the project ended in 2009. So the money’s gone, the time is up, and the project to upgrade the link between Alaska and the Lower 48 is unfinished.

“We’ve done as much as we can to this stage,” said Yukon Territory Transportation Minister Richard Mostyn. The Shakwak stretch of highway is mostly in Canada, specifically the Yukon Territory. “In 2016-17, we spent $10.8 million on the Shakwak stretch of road, in 2017-18 it was down to $6.3 [million], in 18-19 it was down to $2.3 [million]. And now, it’s done.”

Mostyn says that the United States hasn’t fulfilled its obligation under the Shakwak Agreement.

“The pledge was to upgrade the highway to a certain grade from stem to stern. The U.S federal government was going to upgrade the road service to a certain standard. And it remains unfinished. And the language to complete that is not in the transportation bill,” he said.

Mostyn says the Yukon Territory has a tax base of about 40,000 people. He estimates the cost to complete the work is $340 million Canadian. Maintaining that section of road is a big responsibility falling on the shoulders of a small population.

“We’re a rather a geographically large jurisdiction with very few people living here. We have, just by luck of our location, inherited a very important strategic asset to the continent,” Mostyn said.

The Federal Highway Administration or FHWA was in charge of paying Canada for Shakwak with money allocated by Congress. Representatives from FHWA don’t know why Congress stopped funding before the project was complete. The State Department did not respond to KHNS’ requests for comment.

This is a federal issue, but Alaskans rely on this road. So Alaska DOT helped the Yukon apply for a federal grant in 2018. They didn’t get the grant money.

In the Yukon, the road is still degrading. Minister Mostyn says the road bounces like a roller coaster and they’ve even entertained the idea of reverting parts to gravel. He says he will do what he can.

“We have an obligation to keep the road open; we’ll do that. We have an obligation to keep the road safe; we’ll do that as well. But it will come to a lower standard, unless we get more funding from the government that uses the road most and that government is the American government,” he said.

There will be a new federal transportation bill for FY2020. It is uncertain if Shakwak funding will be on it.