Win Gruening: Giving credit where credit is due

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By WIN GRUENING

It’s been a long time since Juneau’s economy has been bolstered by a single significant federal appropriation. It was 25 years ago when Sen. Ted Stevens secured funding for NOAA’s $51 million marine research facility at Lena Point.

That changed last week with the announcement that $125 million in funding for a Juneau-based Coast Guard icebreaker was included in a final Congressional budget bill.

As an addition to America’s woefully short inventory of icebreakers, it will bring additional military and scientific capabilities to America’s presence in the Arctic. Homeporting the ship in Juneau will provide an economic boon to Juneau and Southeast Alaska by adding new residents to the Capital City and delivering hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure spending to the state.

The ship’s complement of 190 crewmembers and support personnel could bring as many as 400 dependents, half of whom might attend our schools.

This announcement couldn’t come at a better time for the Juneau community as the school district has been forced to consolidate schools in the face of a plummeting student population, now projected to decline even further by 1,200 students over the next ten years.

Alaska’s Congressional delegation deserves credit and gratitude for delivering on a promise made years ago.

Our three elected members of Congress each contributed to the overall success of this initiative. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s position as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee was critical in securing the final funding. Sen. Dan Sullivan’s military and national security background was uniquely instrumental in navigating the process. Rep. Mary Peltola handled efforts in the House, providing coordination with Democratic leadership and the Biden administration. 

Much of the heavy lifting, however, was accomplished by Sen. Sullivan whose tenacity overcame political opposition, bureaucratic obstacles, and budgetary roadblocks. He fought fiercely for the funding as he waded through a veritable alphabet soup of agencies and administrators in the OMB, NSC, NOAA, DHS, USN, and USCG. He button-holed Congressional members, military officials, and budget bureaucrats and never took no for an answer. 

As a Senate Armed Services Committee member, Sen. Sullivan has emerged as a leader in strengthening America’s military services particularly in Alaska and the Arctic. He is a frequent “go-to” guest of national news outlets commenting on America’s military capabilities and their importance in protecting America’s national security.

Until recently, Sen. Sullivan was the only commissioned officer in the military reserves serving in the United States Senate. After a 30-year distinguished career in the United States Marine Corps, Sullivan retired this year at the rank of full colonel.

The battle for icebreaker funding was not easy.

According to a joint delegation press release, “[the icebreaker funding] has been accomplished after four years of advocacy by Senator Sullivan and engagement over the span of two Administrations with senior leaders in the USCG, Department of Homeland Security, National Security Council, Office of Management & Budget, and his colleagues in the House of Representatives and Senate. “

“[Sullivan] provided specific authorization for the acquisition of the vessel and provided expedited procurement authority for the vessel as part of the Don Young Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2022. That bill also authorized the conveyance of 2.4 acres of waterfront property from NOAA to the Coast Guard to facilitate the icebreaker homeporting in Juneau. That transfer was completed on February 7, 2024. Senator Sullivan also put a hold on certain USCG promotions until the Coast Guard produced a long-promised study on the homeporting of an icebreaker in Alaska—which ultimately recommended Juneau as the preferred homeporting location.”

While there is much to celebrate, the process is not yet complete.

Successful negotiations to purchase a private icebreaker, along with funding its complete refit with appropriate systems and hardware remain. It could take up to two years to get the ship transitioned to operational status for limited service with the Coast Guard and another six to seven years before the ship is totally equipped for full service.

In the meantime, the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly and its empowered Docks and Harbors Board, in concert with the private sector, must begin planning and devoting resources to be ready to accommodate the ship and Coast Guard personnel and their families in the Juneau community. 

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.

24 COMMENTS

  1. Many good points Win… presented clearly. I must point out we are asking USCG families to enroll their children in Juneau’s failed school system. Independent test scores in JSD (published by DOE) are abysmal.
    Academically dysfunctional children become academically dysfunctional adults. Most homeless drug addicts are academically dysfunctional; its the principal reason they are homeless drug addicts.

    • I’m a Juneauite and I wonder the same thing.

      Don’t think Nome or Dillingham have the ability to create the support infrastructure in a timely manner. But it’s been years since I’ve been to Nome, so that could have changed.

    • Manning the ship will require approximately 600 people including families with children. It is far easier and more economical to add 1,100-miles to its periodic voyages rather than tp accomodate all those people in a remote location. Juneau is blessed with a deep-water port, international airport, weekly marine freight, infrastructure, etc. Juneau’s main problem is actually solvable with bold leadership: its failed education system.

      • Yes Wayne and Dutch Harbor has all those things in spades and is a thousand miles closer to the mission..Adak comes to mind as well….

        Frankly Juneau is a poor choice that smacks of Fraud Waste or Abuse

  2. 125 million $ isn’t what it used to be. Good luck getting a ship and retrofitting it for that price. Maybe Putin has a used one for sale.

  3. This acquisition will be a huge money pit for the Coast Guard. It is not cost-effective to pay through the nose for a Vessel that is owned by one of Senator Sullivan’s big contributors. Make no mistake that there is a huge political element to this decision. Maintaining a nonstandard vessel is extremely expensive and difficult from a supply chain standpoint. Chouest makes out like a bandit in this purchase.

    On the positive side, the infusion of additional families will be great for the community, if we can find a place to house them all at once. The need to accommodate this vessel at the current downtown NOAA facility may also make it tricky to build the fifth dock for Norwegian/Huna Totem.

    Also the Aiviq’s very public failures in the past don’t inspire confidence in its dependability.

  4. Well, it certainly does slate an Ice Breaker to “ALASKA” but, it does seem a rather odd Home Port?
    Juneau seems to be far away from Bering Straits, Norton Sound, Chukchi Sea, Northern Route?
    At least we could potentially move it to … Kodiak, Unalaska, or Adak.
    How much ice are we having to break in Juneau?

    • Rob, Juneau would be the home port, sort of like a base camp. Coast Guard vessels don’t sit in port waiting for ice. They patrol. The USCGC Healy, the largest ice breaker, is home ported in Seattle, WA. No ice to break there, instead they are on months long patrols assisting in maritime scientific research and many other tasks. I have seen the CGC Healy in Seward. CGC Healy made her 4th trip to the North Pole in September of 2022.
      Juneau is certainly closer to the Bering Sea than Seattle and should have the infrastructure to support this base of operations unlike your suggestion of Adak (population 171). Besides the absolutely horrible weather there, there are really no facilities available and you would have to start from scratch. $125 million only goes so far.

      • The potential of Unalaska or Adak … could be the Pearl Harbor of the North! A combined forces outpost consisting of Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard.
        Think BIG!

        • With $125 million??
          If we are talking Adak, they will have to start from scratch and bring everything in, from groceries to building materials to workers to admin…. that alone is expensive. Then you have the issue of unexploded ordinance left over from WWII… and the weather, which makes flying personnel in/out unpredictable and hampers helo operations. You need a base that is accessible for quick deployment and resupply.
          Juneau has an existing infrastructure to support the ice breaker, crew and families. At least for me it is a step in the right direction getting the ice breaker to Alaska instead of Washington state. We can build from here.

      • There is a complete (mothballed) navy base in Adak and there is also a runway (in use) capable of landing and takeoff of a 747.

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