Question re: Shakwak reconstruction project - November 17, 2014

Mr. Silver:   I have a question for the Premier on the future of the Shakwak project. Since the 1970s, the United States government has, under the Shakwak project, been providing funding to upgrade the highways from Haines, Alaska, to Beaver Creek.

Over the years, the funding provided for construction has totalled over $400 million. This year’s budget is $15 million. The problem is the funding for the project for future years was cut off by the United States in 2012. Since then, the government has been lobbying unsuccessfully to have this funding reinstated and has also spent down what monies had been banked over the years. This reserve is now almost empty.

How confident is this government that funding will be restored?

Hon. Mr. Pasloski:     As we heard from the member opposite, this is an agreement that began in 1977. This is an agreement between the United States of America and the Government of Canada, between two sovereign nations — in fact, between the two largest trading partners in the world.

We are working diligently with our friends in Alaska to work with both houses in Washington to see that this funding is reinstated. This highway, this transportation corridor, is of vital importance to mainland Alaska. Approximately 80 percent of the traffic that travels on the north highway is U.S. traffic and we believe that with continued vigilance we will work on that opportunity to ensure that the U.S. government sees the importance of that infrastructure and will continue to invest in it.

Mr. Silver:   I don’t have to impress upon the minister how important to our economy the road-building industry is and the funding therein. Each summer, hundreds of Yukoners are employed because of this funding. It wasn’t that long ago that the Yukon was spending $25 million to $30 million from Shakwak on our highways.

This year, it is only $15 million and it is getting smaller every year. It seems that the government’s lobbying in Washington was ineffective. The Premier was down there in March and we have heard very little ever since. We also know that the federal Conservatives have provided little help on this file as well in terms of lobbying efforts bearing any fruit. According to the Government of Yukon’s website, there is $240 million dollars of work left to as part of the Shakwak project. Now it is certainly beyond the reach of our own budget to get this work done.

What follow-up has been done with the minister since the Premier’s unsuccessful trip to Washington this spring?

Hon. Mr. Pasloski:     The issue of the Shakwak project has been a priority for this government since 2012, when unknowingly — this was at the last minute that this language was dropped out of the new transportation bill. Since that time, we have been working with the federal government, speaking with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and also regularly with the Canadian Ambassador to United States.

In fact, when the United States Ambassador to Canada was up here not long ago, this was the very first issue that we talked about. This is an important issue because this government does not have the finances to be able to continue on with the level of support that is required to get that highway to the standard that it should be. Quite simply, this is an agreement between two sovereign nations. There is an obligation in that agreement that stipulates the work that will be done. The U.S. government agrees to get that highway to a modern two-lane highway and the Canadian and the Yukon government is committing to do the ongoing operation and maintenance.

Of course, we know that this is an election year in the United States and sometimes politics get in the way of such things. Now that we are getting through that season, we look forward to re-engaging with the U.S. government.

Mr. Silver:   The Shakwak project means millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs to Yukoners. It has been a mainstay of our highway budget for more than 30 years and it is in danger of drying up. As the Premier mentioned, when this cut was first announced, this government was caught by surprise. Now this is alarming, seeing that this funding represents the largest part of our road-building budget.

Since the cut was announced, the combined lobbying efforts from the Premier, our senator, our MP and the federal Minister of Foreign Affairs have yielded no results to date. We need U.S. federal support to continue improving the Shakwak highway corridor. So far this government’s efforts have fallen short. I guess the next question is: What are the next steps to getting this crucial funding restored?

Hon. Mr. Pasloski:     I’m going to assume that the Leader of the Liberal Party does understand that, after elections, sometimes priorities do change and that’s what happened in 2012. All indications we had was that the language was remaining in the bill and it was at essentially in the last hour that the language was removed from the bill. We did have money from that agreement that we continued to invest in that project. We continue to invest in that project. All the while, we will also continue to work with the new governor in Alaska, with their representative, with their senators, with our federal government and effort within ourselves to ensure that the awareness is there of the importance of this highway for Yukoners, but also its importance to Alaskans and U.S. citizens. We will be diligent to ensure that we can get that funding reinstated.