Transportation and Infrastructure
Southwest Alaska is a large region with a small and dispersed population. Maintaining infrastructure is difficult given the challenging logistical costs of mobilization. Although, the resource rich region provides a market incentive to develop expensive infrastructure in order to access resources. Some of the highest capacity fishing communities in the nation are located in Southwest Alaska.
Expensive infrastructure is also justified given the military and scientific geo-location, particularly because of Southwest Alaska's proximity to Asia and the Arctic. The geography limits overland connectivity, leaving water and air as the primary modes of inter-community transportation. Communities create a network of valuable ports, airfields, electrical systems, and human and industrial shelter from the elements, allowing for strategic access points for resource utilization throughout Southwest Alaska.
Transportation by boat is the most common means of transporting goods to and around Southwest Alaska. Unalaska’s deep-water port is one of the most productive cargo ports in the United States, along with Kodiak and Bristol Bay ports, as an anchor for both regional fishing as well as domestic and international cargo.
The Alaska Marine Highway system serves the Kodiak hub year-round, and the Aleutian Chain as far west as Unalaska during the summer months, May-September; no scheduled marine services are available for communities of the Bering sea and communities west of Unalaska. As seen in Figure 4.2 - 4.5, Kodiak sees the highest ridership.
Ridership dropped in all ports in 2013 due to the M/V Tustumena being out of service for an extended time. Normal service resumed in 2014 and ridership trends rose. The M/V Tustumena was out of service most of the summer of 2017 due to the need to replace critical steel portions of the vessel. Money was appropriated in the 2017 State Capital Budget to match Federal funding to construct a new vessel to replace the Tustumena.
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Given the high per-capita costs of operating the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) and State budget shortfalls, a growing concern in Southwest Alaska is the long-term sustainability of reliable ferry service. SWAMC participated in an effort led by the Southeast Conference to look at operational models and practices that could reduce the level of State subsidy for the AMHS.
Figure 4.6: Bering Strait and Arctic Transits by Vessel Type (2018), Source: Marine Exchange of Alaska, Bering Strait and Arctic Transits Report
Figure 4.7: Bering Strait Shipping Season Lengths - First and Last Transit, Source: Marine Exchange of Alaska, Bering Strait and Arctic Transits Report
Aviation is the principal means of transporting people to and from the communities throughout the Southwest region. A lack of interconnected roads means passenger and light goods such as mail and perishable food typically move by air. Extreme weather, poor visibility, long distances, limited airport infrastructure, and low economies of scale all present challenges to the use of air travel.
Figure 4.9: Air Traffic Density over Southwest Alaska, Source: ESRI Global Air Traffic As Data Art
The cost of flying has increased significantly over the past decade. Figure 4.10 shows average air-fare rates to specific locations in Southwest Alaska from 2010 to 2017. While the price over time seems to remain steady, real prices for airfare to select communities have risen faster than inflation. Adjusted for inflation, prices increased between 11% and 23% over the 7-year period.
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There is limited overland connectivity in Southwest Alaska. Connector roads that do exist are short and connect communities that are in close proximity; none over approximately 25 miles in length.
The SWAMC region has limited communication infrastructure. Connect Alaska compiles maps and information on the availability of broadband and internet connectivity around the state. Figure 4.12 shows that like other rural regions of the state, Southwest Alaska has limited broadband availability. Broadband connectivity, defined as the availability of download speeds of at least 768 Kbps and upload speeds of 200 Kbps, varies widely across the region.
Dillingham and Kodiak have more households with broadband service at 96% and 91% respectively; Bristol Bay Borough and Lake and Peninsula Borough have broadband coverage of 76% and 51%. In the Aleutians, Unalaska, Cold Bay, King Cove, and Sand Point have 1 Mbps broadband service available from TelAlaska . Table 4.12 shows connection availability and costs in the SWAMC region as of October 1, 2014. This table shows that cost varies across the region, with prices ranging from $95 a month for 150 megabits per second download speed in Kodiak and Anchorage to $165 for six megabits per second of data in Dillingham. While network connection services still remain limited in many areas, recent investments in microwave and fiber optic networks are slowly bringing increasing levels of service to Southwest Alaska. However, more remote areas are still encountering reduced services compared to more populated ones.
The housing stock in Southwest Alaska varies greatly between communities. According to interviews and conversations within the SWAMC network, many communities are experiencing shortages of affordable and adequate housing. Figure 4.14 and Figure 4.15 show information on housing units, average household size and overcrowding percentages for the six boroughs/census areas as well as for the state. Four of the six areas are experiencing higher overcrowding levels than the state as a whole; in the Dillingham Census Area, 20% of occupied housing units are overcrowded, followed by 11.8% in the Lake and Peninsula Borough and 10% in both the Aleutians West Census Area and the Kodiak Island Borough.
Figure 4.13: Percent of households spending over 30% of income on housing in:
Energy costs in Southwest Alaska are generally high with significant variability between communities. Annual household energy costs range from $2,560 in the Municipality of Anchorage to $5,603 in the Aleutian West Census Area. All SWAMC regions experience energy costs that are higher than the state average of $4,681 per year and most regions are more than three times the national average of $2,146 per year (see Figure 4.16). Affordability is an issue for some communities although the region has fewer households spending over 30% of their income than the rest of the state and the nation. There are a number of energy cost saving programs in the state that are available to help reduce energy costs, including the Alaska Housing and Finance Corporation (AHFC)’s Weatherization Assistance Program. Participation in these energy programs varied widely across the region: 40% of Lake and Peninsula Borough households participated in a program, while only 4% of households participated from the Aleutians West Census Area.
The Alaska Energy Authority’s Power Cost Equalization (PCE) program subsidizes the cost of electricity for approved rural communities. The PCE subsidy has helped buffer households from the increasing rise in energy costs. Figure 4.18 shows the residential energy cost per kilowatt hour before and after the PCE subsidy. While the program helps buffer households from increasing energy costs, it only applies to residential energy costs. As a result, commercial energy costs remain very high in Southwest Alaska.