Q.P. Shakwak Funding, May 7, 2013

Question re: Shakwak project

Mr. Silver:    I have a question for the Minister of Highways and Public Works about the future of the Shakwak project. Since the 1970s the United States government has been providing funding to upgrade the highway from Haines, Alaska, to Beaver Creek. Over the years the funding provided for construction that has totalled more than $400 million. In 2011, Shakwak accounted for approximately 40 percent of our entire highway construction budget. In 2011 it was $20 million, and in this year’s budget it is $17.5 million. The problem is the funding for the project for future years has been cut off in the United States. What is the minister doing to get the United States government to continue funding this important project?

Hon. Mr. Istchenko:    I thank the member opposite for the question. Those in the riding of Kluane who are listening will be happy to hear that the government, because of our good fiscal responsibility and planning, still has $48 million in reserve of the U.S. funding for Shakwak, so that’s going to be able to extend us to keep working on it for future years.

Mr. Speaker, I was at the TIA conference — the member was also there, as well as the Leader of the Official Opposition. When I spoke there, I spoke of the great working relationship we have with our counterparts in the State of Alaska, and we have debated a motion in the House regarding working on infrastructure with the Government of Canada. My fellow colleagues and I, any time we are at meetings, are pushing Washington and working with our state counterparts.

On that note, the Governor of the State of Alaska has unequivocally committed to the fact that we will work together on this, and there will always be money to keep the only access road to Alaska safe for the travelling public.

Mr. Silver:    Mr. Speaker, this funding is very important in our road-building industry. Each summer, hundreds of Yukoners are employed because of this funding. At $17.5 million, it was the largest item in the transportation capital budget. In 2014, the United States government will pass a new transportation bill. The minister’s goal should be to get Shakwak money into that piece of legislation.

In 1977, the Canadian and the United States governments negotiated the Shakwak agreement. The funding actually flows from the United States to our federal government and then to the U.S.

Has the minister raised this issue with the Government of Canada? Are they helping to get this money reinstated, and if not, why not?

Hon. Mr. Istchenko:    Absolutely, we have. Actually, my deputy minister was just down in Ottawa not long ago and that was one of the topics of conversation with our federal counterparts.

Mr. Speaker, when we talk about the renewal of Shakwak funding, we know that it was pulled out of a bill just before the last election for President of the United States. On an ongoing basis, we are communicating with our fellow counterparts. We talk about the Haines Road, the Skagway Road — both roads that we put our dollars into to maintain and keep open for citizens of the United States of America to get through to Alaska — soldiers who are providing sovereignty for their State of Alaska. We talk about people who move back and forth from the State of Alaska; we talk about the tourism industry; we talk about all the necessities and the reasons why the Alaska Highway is so important. We’re going above and beyond the call of duty and it is on our radar. I have confidence in the department and confidence in our leaders that we will maintain this road to the utmost standard for years and years to come.

Mr. Silver:    There is still a question as to where that money’s going to come from. The Shakwak project means millions of dollars a year and hundreds of jobs. It has been a mainstay of our highway budget for more than 30 years and it is in danger of drying up. An official in the minister’s department told the local media in January, and I quote: “We never had any indication that Shakwak was on the cutting block and it was a surprise to the people in Washington that we deal with as well.”

This is a big pot of money. I believe it will be worth our while to have someone in Washington working on our behalf on this project. Has the government ever hired a lobbyist in Washington to work on this issue, and if not, will the minister consider the suggestion?

Hon. Mr. Pasloski:    The member opposite might want to talk to the other members on the other side of the House about lobbyists, but this government has been working diligently on this issue. I have spoken directly to the Governor of Alaska about this. We are also working with the U.S. State Department, working with our federal government through DFAIT — Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade — through the Minister Baird, we also have talked with our Member of Parliament and our Senator, and we’re also working with the Canadian Ambassador to theUnited States in Washington. So, we are working on this.

We realize the importance of this. One of our main messages that we have going forward is the fact that the United States government did sign an agreement to complete this project, so we will continue to work on that. But I have to say that the strong financial management of the last 10 years of Yukon Party government has put us in the position to be able to mitigate risks as they come up. This was one of those risks that I spoke about last year within the Budget Address, through the year, and in fact again this year when I talked about some of the risks and why we need to ensure that we remain financially responsible so that when risks rear their head, we are in a position so that we are not taking money away from tomorrow’s projects to pay for today’s issues.