Cash for Knik bridge gets cool reaction from Alaska legislators

Knik Arm crossing funds debated in committee, then moved to others.

February 15, 2011 

A proposal to give at least $150 million in state money for the Knik Arm bridge is moving forward in the Alaska Senate despite big questions raised by legislators.

The Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday moved out with no objection a pair of bills to give money to the controversial project. But the sponsor of the bills, Wasilla Republican Sen. Linda Menard, was the only committee member to give unqualified support for giving bridge backers what they want.

Fairbanks Democratic Sen. Joe Thomas said he's afraid the state could be on the hook for a lot more than the initial $150 million. "My concern is knowing exactly what the state's obligation is going to be in the long run," he said.

But the proposal has influential backers, including Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan. He wrote a letter urging the Legislature to pass the bills, saying the Knik Arm bridge would be "an asset to Alaskans for generations."

Senate Transportation Chairman Albert Kookesh said the questions about cost will be hashed out in the Finance Committee, where the bills go next. Kookesh, a Democrat from the Southeast community of Angoon, wrote that he had "no recommendation" on whether the bills are a good idea.

The project is a two-lane bridge connecting Anchorage to mostly undeveloped Mat-Su land near Point MacKenzie. The plan is to collect tolls from drivers, with a charge estimated to be $5 each way per vehicle.

The state would join with a private developer. The developer would borrow to pay for bridge construction and operate it in exchange for the state sharing toll money.

But bridge planners now say the tolls won't cover the payments to the developers in the first years the bridge is open. So the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, which the Legislature created in 2003 to pursue the bridge project, is asking lawmakers to appropriate $150 million this year for a reserve fund.

KABATA says the tolls will cover the payments after about the bridge's first three years.

WHO HAS THE RISK?

Menard's Senate Bill 79 would provide the $150 million in state money for the project. Her other bridge bill, SB 80, says the financial obligations made by KABATA "under the partnerships or contracts are obligations of the state."

Bridge critic Jamie Kenworthy told the Transportation Committee SB 80 amounts to a blank check, giving the state liability for a project that could cost over a billion dollars.

"With these two bills the state will now have the full downside of the project," said Kenworthy, a former director of the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation.

KABATA officials disputed that. The state's commitment would just be to make the annual payment to the developer in exchange for financing building and operating the bridge, said Michael Foster, chairman of the toll authority. There would be bids to see which potential developer asks for the lowest payment and that amount would be agreed on before the bridge is started, he said.

"We're confident that after the first few years of operation the toll revenue will be adequate to pay for that annual payment," Foster said.

He said the surplus toll revenue would eventually go to fund other state projects. KABATA officials said the state money will help lower the cost of financing for the project, which means the annual payment to the developer will be less.

COSTS AND COMMUTING TIME

Democrats in the state House are especially vocal opponents of the bridge. Anchorage Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan told reporters Tuesday that people need to remember the bridge originally wasn't supposed to cost the state anything.

"How does this benefit the people of Alaska exactly? I'm not getting it. I really wasn't getting it too much before this and I'm really not getting it when they want to stick their hands in the taxpayer's pocket," he said.

The legislative research agency produced a report Tuesday answering questions about the bridge posed by Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara. It said KABATA's data shows the commute time between Anchorage and Palmer or Wasilla wouldn't be any faster if the bridge were built. The report also said the first phase of the construction project is estimated at $716 million and a second phase would be $379 million, including additional road upgrades on both sides.

Critics of the project say KABATA's forecast for bridge traffic and Mat-Su growth are far too high. Bridge authority officials told lawmakers Tuesday that they're still confident in the numbers but are reworking the traffic forecast.

KABATA and other bridge advocates say Anchorage is running out of developable land and the bridge would open the area for housing and industry and provide a new route to the growing Mat-Su. The bridge isn't just for the Mat-Su but will handle freight and traffic coming down to Anchorage from the rest of the state, said Jeff Ottesen, director of development for the state transportation department.

He said the bridge would spur growth toward the south end of Knik-Goose Bay Road. Without the bridge, Ottesen said, Mat-Su growth will concentrate in the Palmer and Wasilla areas, which would require road upgrades there.

"We're hearing a lot here about risk," Ottesen told the Transportation Committee. "Alaska is a place where, if you're going to live here, you're going to do things you have to take a little bit of risk ... we're always fighting the naysayers."


Daily News reporter Lisa Demer contributed to this report.

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