Assembly to vote on support for Knik bridge

RESOLUTION: If passed, the measure would rescind city backing for the project.

September 13, 2008 

Two Anchorage Assembly members want their colleagues to withdraw the city's support for the Knik Arm bridge project, arguing the tens of millions of dollars in federal money directed to it could be better spent on other local transportation needs.

Patrick Flynn and Sheila Selkregg say the proposed crossing is too expensive, probably increasing in cost, and that conditions that may have once justified its construction as a quicker link to a mostly undeveloped part of the Mat-Su Borough have changed.

Both say the bridge may eventually be a good idea, but building it now is premature and risky.

"Instead of getting into it and getting halfway done, we think that we should probably back out now," Selkregg said. "It might be appropriate in another 20 years, but right now in light of the available resources both at a national level and at a state and local level, this is way too expensive in terms of our overall needs."

They plan to put the question to the full Assembly at its next meeting on Tuesday. If passed as written, their resolution would rescind the city's support for the project and ask the joint state-city transportation planning agency AMATS to begin the process of removing it from long-range highway plans.

It also would ask Gov. Sarah Palin to reallocate the unspent federal bridge money -- about $63 million -- to other priorities in Southcentral Alaska, including Glenn Highway improvements, the highway-to-highway connection between the Glenn and Seward highways, and commuter transit.

In a brief, e-mailed statement, Mayor Mark Begich said the resolution addresses questions he's always had -- "how is it financed, how does bridge traffic pass through Anchorage, and what's the impact on the Government Hill neighborhood."

But Darcie Salmon, acting chairman of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority and a former Mat-Su Borough mayor, said the crossing is even more important now in light of a planned prison and other developments across Cook Inlet from Anchorage.

THE PRICE TAG

The authority, set up by former Gov. Frank Murkowski to build the bridge, has estimated the crossing will cost between $400 million and $600 million. But that estimate hasn't increased in years, and state and federal highway agencies plan to hire a contractor to do an independent cost analysis.

That analysis is expected in early December, said Gordon Keith, the state Transportation Department's central region director and a member of both AMATS and the bridge authority's board of directors.

Keith said discussions about pulling the plug on the bridge project have been going on since Flynn and Selkregg were appointed to city seats on the AMATS panel this year. Both are part of a new Assembly majority that came into power after elections in April. Flynn, who represents the Government Hill neighborhood that would be the Anchorage launching point for the bridge, campaigned against it.

AMATS stands for Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions. Its policy committee has five voting members. Flynn, Selkregg and Begich are three of them. Keith and another state official are the other two.

Keith said that he is surprised by the timing of this latest turn of events, and that it would be better addressed when the new cost analysis is in hand.

"If it means that all the other roads in the central region don't get built, the Knik Arm crossing probably wouldn't have my support either," Keith said. "My reaction is this is sort of premature ... particularly before we even have the estimate back."

There's no guarantee the state would redirect federal bridge money to other projects in Anchorage, he said. It could be allocated to any of the major Alaska roads that are part of the federal highway system.

REPAYING THE FEDS?

It's also possible the federal government could demand the state reimburse the $41 million or so that has already been spent on environmental studies and other bridge expenses, Keith said.

Flynn said his proposal to the Assembly would address that by concluding that conditions have changed and the bridge no longer makes sense. "We have to have a reason," he said.

"The fact is that this bridge is extremely expensive and growing in expense (and) the structure for funding is uncertain," Selkregg said.

She also argues that steep increases in gasoline prices have made daily commutes between Anchorage and the Mat-Su a lot less attractive. Those workers will start looking for jobs closer to home, she said.

But Salmon said those same gas prices mean the bridge makes even more sense now.

A state prison planned in the Mat-Su "is actually six miles from the proposed juncture of where the bridge would come in," he said, and would create hundreds of new, good-paying jobs.

"I would suggest that driving to and from Anchorage would be a whole lot easier on the gas tank than driving to and from Wasilla, which is essentially about 30 miles down the road here," Salmon said, adding that other jobs will be created at Port MacKenzie, and that surveys have consistently shown strong majorities favoring the bridge.

"It's almost ludicrous, to my mind ... not to believe it's essential."

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