Legislature(2003 - 2004)
04/22/2004 09:03 AM Senate FIN
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
CS FOR SENATE BILL NO. 31(RES) "An Act relating to a transportation corridor for extension of the Alaska Railroad to Canada and to extension of the Alaska Railroad to connect with the North American railroad system." This was the third hearing for this bill in the Senate Finance Committee. Co-Chair Wilken stated this bill, sponsored by Senator Cowdery, "authorizes [the] Alaska Railroad Corporation to delineate a transportation and utility corridor from Eielson Air Force Base to the Alaska-Canada border." RICHARD, SCHMITZ, Staff to Senator John Cowdery, testified that no changes have been proposed to this legislation since the previous hearing. He stressed the importance that it passes into law, expounding on the support and importance to establish a corridor to extend the railroad into Canada. He reminded of the significant discussion held in the Senate Resources Committee and efforts to resolve certain issues. He noted that the provisions of the legislation would not be immediately implemented, as other steps must be first taken. Co-Chair Wilken asked if the Alaska Railroad Corporation supports this legislation. WENDY LINDSKOOG, Director of External Affairs, Alaska Railroad Corporation, Department of Community and Economic Development, affirmed. Senator Hoffman clarified that the Railroad supports the bill. JEANNETTE JAMES, former Alaska State legislator, testified via teleconference from an offnet location in her position as an advisor to the Murkowski Administration on railroad issues, in support of the bill. She stated that the legislation has undergone compromises and that it should be advanced. Co-Chair Wilken noted new fiscal zero notes being distributed to the Committee. Senator Bunde understood ownership of this land would be transferred to the Railroad, which would maintain complete control of the land and could restrict access to citizens. He questioned how this would have cost to the State. Mr. Schmitz replied that access to the land would not be restricted until track is actually laid. He stated this legislation would transfer ownership of a 200-foot corridor in locations where the railroad would cross State-owned land. He noted that the Railroad would be required to negotiate right of ways separately for federally-owned land, lands owned by Native corporations and privately-owned lands. Senator Bunde contended that the 200-foot corridor, therefore, could not be otherwise disposed of by the State, which would be a financial loss. Ms. James countered that this argument "falls on its face" because the land would transfer from one State entity to another. She explained that if the railroad were not constructed on the property, ownership would transfer back to the State. Senator Bunde remarked that this legislation would transfer ownership from a State entity to a "quasi-private" entity, not subject to administrative and procedures statutes. He disputed this transfer would not have a zero fiscal impact. Ms. Lindskoog detailed that as a compromise a 200-foot corridor within a 500-foot corridor would be transferred to the Railroad fee simple. She noted that the Department of Natural Resources would reserve oil and gas mineral rights and that the State would have control over the placement of railroad crossings. She also pointed out that the State would have rights to utilize the property for a natural gas pipeline. As a result of these differences, she stated the proposed land would be unlike traditional Railroad-owned property. Senator Bunde informed that ownership of subsurface rights is not transferred to any landowner and he therefore maintained his disagreement. Senator Olson asked how access for recreation and hunting activities would be protected. Ms. Lindskoog reminded that people are not allowed access to airport runway tarmacs because of safety issues. She replied that the Railroad and the Department of Natural Resources would review user needs closely to determine where crossings would be located. Senator Olson expressed concern about complaints from hunters cited with trespassing for crossing the tracks "in the middle of nowhere". Ms. Lindskoog asked if Senator Olson suggests that hunters should have a right to access the right of way. Senator Olson "expressed discomfort" that hunters would be in violation of trespassing laws. Senator Dyson asked if Railroad rights of way have more access restrictions than a highway. Ms. Lindskoog surmised they do not. She furthered that the Department of Natural Resources would retain significantly more control over these lands than currently exercised with the route between Seward and Fairbanks. She stated that if an area were commonly used for hunting, it would likely be assumed that a crossing would be located at the site. Senator Dyson noted the assumption that people hunting or berry picking would have the wherewithal to move off the highway to avoid a passing truck. He opined that designated railroad crossings in remote areas would be impractical. Ms. Lindskoog informed that jaywalkers are not always ticketed. She stressed that the trespass laws are intended for safety. Co-Chair Wilken characterized crossing of the Railroad as potential trespassing and pitching of a tent on the rails as trespassing. Mr. Schmitz outlined possible signage to alert people of trespassing laws and safety concerns. He assumed that a "commonsense approach" would be adopted. He stated that in many rural areas, warning signs are all that is necessary, as opposed to a commuter train in an urban area with would likely be fenced off Senator Bunde knew of specific duck hunters cited for trespassing along the Railroad. He emphasized that this legislation does not provide a "typical transfer" of property and that if undertaken the Railroad would receive sole control over the land. He remarked that if the decision is to "give away our natural resources" this fact must be understood fully. Senator Olson asked what party would retain the power of imminent domain. Ms. Lindskoog replied that the Railroad would have this power. PHILLIS JOHNSON, Attorney, Alaska Railroad Corporation, testified via teleconference from an offnet location, to affirm that the Railroad holds the power of eminent domain just as the Department of Natural Resources and utility corporations do for lands it administers. However, she pointed out that the Railroad has never exercised the power of eminent domain. She noted that in some areas of the proposed route the entire width of the corridor is not needed. She stated this was established as a compromise in this legislation and that corridor width is commonly negotiated in land transfers as a "last resort". Ms. Johnson also commented that as a lawyer representing the interest of the Railroad, she is always mindful of potential litigation relating to trespassing issues. She stressed that the transfer of title is important to the State, whether the Railroad obtains fee simple title or "other mechanism" to utilize the land, such as a permit from the Department of Natural Resources. Regardless, she stressed, safety concerns would remain and the issue of "tunneling" people must be addressed. Senator Dyson strongly supported this bill and suggested the safety issues could be addressed "in another forum". He viewed land owned by the Railroad to be held in trust for the people of Alaska and that access should not be limited. He was offended with "what the Railroad has done in Whittier" indicating the extensive barriers erected to prevent trespassing. He stressed that common sense is expected when near railroad tracks and opined that most persons hit by a train likely "deserve it." He expressed that the Railroad should hold the land proposed in this legislation, not only for Railroad purposes, but also for Alaskans in general. Co-Chair Green stated that although she agreed with Senator Dyson's comments about railroad crossings, major liability issues exist. She spoke of "major issues" with access to Railroad property in the Mat-Su. She spoke of attempts to change casual use at a "non- official" crossing an established crossing through repeated use. She stated that the Railroad insists upon involvement in these decisions. She remarked that any land transferred to the Railroad with the expectation that the land would be used for the benefit of the public would not occur. Rather, this land would be utilized for the Railroad's purpose and to generate profit for the Railroad. She was unsure how a dividend program could be established to ensure benefit for all Alaskans, or of a method to promise access to everyone. Senator Dyson offered a motion to report the bill from Committee with individual recommendations and new fiscal notes. Senator Bunde objected. He remarked that the zero amounts of the fiscal notes are disingenuous. He expounded that this legislation involves the transfer of State assets and suggested that the legislature is "sometimes…too flexible." A roll call was taken on the motion. IN FAVOR: Senator B. Stevens, Senator Dyson, Senator Hoffman, Senator Olson, Co-Chair Green and Co-Chair Wilken OPPOSED: Senator Bunde The motion PASSED (6-1) CS SB 31 (RES) MOVED from Committee with three zero fiscal notes from the Department of Natural Resources, dated 1/23/04, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, dated 1/28/04, and the Department of Community and Economic Development, Alaska Railroad Corporation, dated 4/22/04.