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Governor cool to $13 billion railroad proposal

Premier Dennis Fentie now appears to be dancing solo on the proposed Yukon-Alaska rail link following an abrupt change of heart from the Alaskan…

Premier Dennis Fentie now appears to be dancing solo on the proposed Yukon-Alaska rail link following an abrupt change of heart from the Alaskan government.

Newly elected Governor Sarah Palin is setting herself apart from predecessor Frank Murkowski by establishing new, opposing positions to several state mega projects Murkowski championed.

As of this week, that list now includes the Yukon-Alaska railroad project.

“At this time, a rail link through Canada is not on governor Palin’s priority list,” said deputy press secretary Sharon Leighow in an e-mailed statement Tuesday.

“As negotiations on a natural gas pipeline move forward, and the need for transportation increases, the idea of a link through Canada will be revisited.”

Palin has announced her position despite a personal visit from Fentie in January and notwithstanding the still unreleased results of a $6 million economic study on the link, which was jointly financed by the Yukon and Alaska.

The huge cost of the rail link, laid out in that study and leaked to the Alaska media, is believed to be behind Palin’s chill, say critics.

In this week’s Alaska Journal of Commerce, University of Alaska researcher Paul Metz reveals the long-delayed study has pegged the railway’s cost between US$11- and $13-billion.

The railway isn’t on the state’s “front burner,” Palin is quoted as saying in the story.

Fentie could not be reached for comment.

Palin’s abrupt abandonment of Murkowski’s railroad policy has the potential to derail the project and leave the Yukon — and Fentie — without a business partner, said Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell on Thursday.

“This can’t be good very good news for Dennis Fentie,” said Mitchell on Thursday. “He was the one out there selling why this (partnership) was a great idea.

“We’ve now spent $3 million and our partners aren’t interested in the partnership.

“Yes, a railroad would be good for Yukon if one were to be built. No, we’re not going to be the ones to make that happen. It’s going to take the two federal governments to decide they want to do this.”

There has been no interest shown from the private sector to build the rail link either, added Mitchell.

Despite continued lobbying by Fentie and Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, the Canadian government’s position is much like Palin’s: The idea is interesting, but not a priority.

During his trip to Anchorage in January, Fentie invited Palin to Whitehorse for a briefing when the study is released.

That briefing appears to be Fentie’s last chance to guide Alaska back on the rails.

Economic Development officials seemed surprised when told of Palin’s comments.

Until the leaders meet, the Yukon government’s rail-link position will not change, said deputy minister of Economic Development Eugene Lysy on Thursday.

“Alaska has never given that message to us,” said Lysy of Palin’s comments. “They have accepted the premier’s invitation to come and receive a briefing, so that is the information that we will go on.

“We don’t want to speculate on whatever information is out there at this time,” he said.

However, many are questioning why a researcher in Alaska has access to the rail link’s projected costs while those paying for the study have not been allowed to inspect its findings.

The study was launched with great fanfare in July 2005 and was due to be completed one year later. It is now eight months late.

Though Metz’s comments about projected prices for the project may appear to be a leak, the study itself remains incomplete, said Amanda Leslie, spokesperson for the Whitehorse-based Alaska Canada rail link organization.

“There are a lot of myths circulating about the completion of the study,” said Leslie. “The research component of the study is complete; all the research has been finished. An executive summary is being prepared to present to Governor Palin and Premier Fentie,” she said.

But according to Lysy, the study is complete and just awaiting documents to be printed and prepared for both the government of Yukon and Alaska.

 “I don’t think there’s any delay,” he said. “It’s a huge amount of work. I think that initially that timeline might have been too aggressive to try to complete all that work.”

With all the speculation circulating, and in light of Palin’s comments, Fentie needs to push to have the study released, said Mitchell.

 “It would be nice to see what we purchased,” he said. “Then we wouldn’t have to discuss information that’s been leaked, we’d have the facts.”