This week, I had the opportunity to visit a state that many Americans never see: Alaska. The wilderness and coastline of America's 49th state are absolutely beautiful and the people I met were wonderful, but as I learned this week, the folks on our "Last Frontier" also have many unique transportation challenges and needs.
One of Alaska's star modes of transportation is the scenic Alaska Railroad, which I rode south from Anchorage. This historic railroad is a great way for tourists to experience Alaska's natural beauty. It also generates a lot of economic activity for local businesses.
In Girdwood, Alaska I met with transportation officials and community members to talk about regional traffic safety challenges -- particularly the need to find ways to reduce the fatality rate on the Seward Highway. Since 2006, stepped-up enforcement and public awareness efforts have improved safety, but we can do better. I made sure state and local officials know that DOT will continue supporting their efforts to bring the highway's fatality rate down even further.
One of the most interesting parts of my visit, and one of the transportation resources that really provides Alaskans a wealth of economic benefits is the Port of Anchorage. I toured the port with U.S. Representative Don Young, U.S. Senator Mark Begich, former Governor and current Port Director Bill Sheffield, Anchorage Mayor Sullivan, and representatives from a number of shipping companies that use the port.
Through rail, road, and air connections, this port receives approximately 90 percent of all goods heading to Alaskan homes and businesses across their vast state. It stages 100 percent of the exports of refined petroleum products from the state’s largest refinery in Fairbanks and facilitates petroleum deliveries from refiners on the Kenai Peninsula and in Valdez. And, it has been designated by the Department of Defense as one of 19 "National Strategic Ports" because it provides valuable supplies to Alaska's military installations. In fact, the Port has deployed more than 18,000 pieces of military equipment around the world since 2005.
Now, many states have railroads, highways, and ports, but one transportation feature that makes Alaska unique is its reliance on general aviation. Many Alaskans fly small airplanes the way the rest of us drive cars and trucks. In addition to transporting mail and food, some remote communities even use airplanes to ferry kids to and from school--every day. During a roundtable with Senator Begich and the general aviation community, I had the chance to discuss ways the DOT can continue to keep general aviation safe, reliable and affordable for Alaskans.
Senator Begich and I also had the honor of meeting with Alaska's tribal leaders and hearing about their transportation concerns and needs, as well as state business and labor leaders with whom we discussed the importance of passing the American Jobs Act in order to create jobs and revitalize transportation in the state.
The bottom line is that, everywhere I went in Alaska, I heard about the urgent need to improve the state's transportation network. Whether it was ferries, roadways, general aviation, railroads or even bike paths, the message was the same: Alaskans want and need better connectivity and mobility.
And I was happy to tell them that we can help make that happen. Whether it's through our existing programs or the investments spelled out in the American Jobs Act, DOT is working hard to be a reliable partner to Alaska and all 50 states.