Knik Arm bridge planners are moving to take over ownership of Government Hill homes and businesses that stand in the right-of-way of the controversial mega project to link Anchorage and mostly undeveloped land in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Bridge opponents are trying to stop the process and convince legislators to turn down state funding for the bridge. They held an event on Thursday at which UAA economics professor Scott Goldsmith questioned the financial plan for the project and its estimate of how many drivers will use the bridge and pay the tolls to make it viable.
The Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority announced Thursday that six different consortiums, which include global construction firms and investment groups, submitted "statements of qualification" by the Wednesday deadline showing interest in being chosen as the developer of the bridge project. The bridge authority chairman hailed it as a major development.
"The buzz on the street is tremendous interest in the project," bridge authority chairman Michael Foster said on Thursday.
Government Hill Community Council President Bob French also spoke to the news media on Thursday. He held an event at Sunset Park along with others critical of the bridge project. French said two homes, a Subway sandwich shop, a Tesoro gas station and the Sourdough Visitors Lodge on Government Hill are to be demolished and a hole would be carved in the park.
"A DEFINITE GO"
Property owners received a notice saying an appraiser would inspect their property and the bridge authority would then offer to buy it. The Legislature has given the bridge authority power of eminent domain to take properties if they cannot be bought.
French said it was "outrageous" that the Federal Highway Administration has authorized the bridge authority to spend government money on this. He said it was premature and that, among other things, the project doesn't even have financing.
Bridge authority chairman Foster said the process of acquiring properties could begin as soon as the Federal Highway Administration issues its "Record of Decision" giving a green light for the project. That happened last December.
"To us it's a definite go," he said.
The authority has $35 million left from its earlier government appropriations and an estimated $15.3 million of that could go for acquiring property. The land in the Government Hill neighborhood of Anchorage is just a slice of that and much of the right of way is in the Mat-Su borough. The bridge authority said it's focusing now only on Government Hill.
The Municipality of Anchorage has filed a lawsuit against the project, saying the road connection to the Anchorage side of the bridge would be a big problem for the expanding port. But it appears that lawsuit could be settled within days.
BOONDOGGLE OR BOOM?
Opponents say the bridge to land near Point MacKenzie won't save commuters any time between Anchorage and Wasilla or Palmer. They call it a huge financial risk for the state and say the money could be better spent on other projects.
Bridge supporters say it will open up land for the development of housing and industry and provide a second route into the growing Mat-Su Borough. They say the tolls will cover the costs after the early years and create a surplus to go for other projects.
Supporters tout a poll by Dittman Research suggesting heavy public support for the project. Opponents on Thursday produced their own poll by Ivan Moore Research suggesting just a narrow majority of Alaskans favor building the bridge and that most Alaskans oppose efforts to have the state put money into the project and cover shortfalls from toll revenue.
The plan is for the private developer to borrow money to pay for the bridge construction and then operate the bridge. In exchange, the state would agree to make annual payments to the developer. The idea is for the state payments to come out of the tolls that each driver would pay to use the bridge. The tolls would start out at $5 each way per car and grow.
But the bridge planners don't expect the tolls to bring in enough money to cover the payments to the developer in the first few years the bridge is open.
They've asked the Legislature for $150 million in state money to cover that cost and to declare that financial obligations made by the bridge authority are "obligations of the state." Bridge opponents say that's a blank check and question the traffic forecasts the authority uses to maintain that the tolls will be enough to cover the costs after the first few years.
Goldsmith, with UAA's Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), said bridge planners forecast an average 35,000 trips per day over the bridge by 2035. He said that's double what an analysis by ISER found. Goldsmith said he was attending the anti-bridge media event on Thursday because "primarily I'm a concerned citizen who has analytic capability."
There are differences in the population forecasts used. Wilbur Smith Associates, which did the traffic forecast for the bridge authority, estimates there will be 74,600 households in the Mat-Su Borough in 2035. There were 31,824 in the 2010 Census.
Goldsmith said the Wilbur Smith forecast is significantly higher than ISER's projection of 63,000 Mat-Su households in 2035 and the state labor department's projection there will be 56,000 households in the Mat-Su in 2035. .
Goldsmith also said the forecast that Wilbur Smith Associates did for the bridge authority also appears to assume the number of vehicle trips per household will double between now and 2035.
"You have to ask the question, why would we expect the number of trips per household to double in the next 25 years?" Goldsmith said.
Bridge authority chief financial officer Kevin Hemenway said Wilbur Smith Associates is the "pre-eminent traffic and toll revenue consulting firm" and their studies have supported about $86 billion in toll financing nationwide. The company's long-term reputation is on the line, Hemenway said, and it isn't not going to skew a study to please a client in Alaska.
He said Wilbur Smith considered the ISER numbers as well as other projections in coming up with its population forecast.
But more importantly Wilbur Smith also did a detailed socio-economic study at the micro-level of what it calls "traffic analysis zones" all throughout the Mat-Su, he said. That considered, at a small scale level, the impact the bridge will have on the areas, he said.
Reach Sean Cockerham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.