Judge puts Anchorage's lawsuit against Knik bridge on hold

SETTLEMENT POSSIBLE: A plan to redesign the disputed road near Anchorage Port could appease city.

Anchorage Daily NewsSeptember 13, 2011 

A federal judge has put the city of Anchorage's lawsuit against the Knik Arm Bridge project on hold as the sides appear to be closing in on a settlement.

The city filed a lawsuit in July asking the court to force the Federal Highway Administration to drop its green light for the controversial project, which is designed to connect Anchorage with mostly undeveloped land in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough near Point Mackenzie.

The city's complaint is that the planned road leading to the Anchorage side of the bridge would present too big of an obstacle to operations at the city-owned port.

Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority Chairman Michael Foster said Tuesday that his agency has agreed on general terms with the city on a plan to redesign the road that's in dispute and settle the lawsuit.

"We have come up with an engineered solution," Foster said. Now it's up to state and city lawyers to work out the details, he said. City Attorney Dennis Wheeler said talks continue with the bridge authority, known as KABATA, and with state agencies that could have a stake in the transportation corridor through the port.

"We have made progress in our conversations with KABATA, but have not reached a final resolution," Wheeler said.

Bridge authority chairman Foster said the proposed compromise involves redesigning the road at a point where it runs through a narrow piece of land in state tidelands near the "dry berth" at the port.

"We hucked the property line a little closer, we changed the curve a little bit and we shrunk down our right of way," he said.

If the city agrees to a deal and drops the lawsuit, one obstacle to the bridge project would be removed.

But other hurdles remain, including a need for state money. Bridge planners are asking the Legislature for an initial $150 million in state money and to pass a bill declaring that financial obligations of the bridge will be obligations of the state.

GETTING A DEAL

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess last week issued a ruling to delay all proceedings in the lawsuit for at least 45 days for work on the settlement.

The Federal Highway Administration had asked the judge to put the lawsuit on hold and the city didn't object. The highway administration's lawyer gave the negotiations between the city and the bridge authority as the reason for the delay.

"Given these negotiations and possible voluntary dismissal of this action, any effort by the court and defendants to proceed with the ordinary procedures applicable to this action may be unnecessary and wasteful of their limited resources," the highway administration told the judge.

A group opposed to the bridge plan, called Friends of Government Hill, is asking the judge to reconsider his decision to put the lawsuit on hold. It's asking the court to let it intervene in the suit.

The group argued the Government Hill neighborhood of Anchorage is impacted by the access road. Friends of Government Hill said it is effectively shut out of the process by the judge halting the lawsuit while the city and the bridge authority work out changes to the road on their own.

The federal Record of Decision issued last December picked a bridge route that would traverse lower Knik Arm and land about a mile north of the expanded Port of Anchorage on tidelands owned by the city. The city said in its lawsuit that the road leading up to the bridge would pass through the port area and "irreparably injure the Port's vital role in the regional economy."


Reach Sean Cockerham at scockerham@adn.com or 257-4344.

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