Feds OK Knik Arm bridge route, but big obstacles remain

Kyle Hopkins

Federal highway officials on Wednesday approved construction of an 8,200-foot bridge linking Anchorage and Point MacKenzie. But don't get your toll money out just yet.

The state agency that's trying to build the Knik Arm crossing, a mega-project dreamed and debated for decades in Southcentral, still has much more work to do. More lobbying, more permitting and, maybe most importantly, finding a way to pay the more than $700 million price tag.

Some of that money -- or at least some of the risk -- could come from the state.

For years, the plan has been for the state to team up with a private investor that would finance, build and operate the bridge in exchange for toll revenue. But Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority officials on Wednesday said they also may ask the Legislature to guarantee loans for the project, create a reserve that would temporarily cover toll shortfalls, or help pay some portion of construction itself.

Construction could begin as early as 2012, said KABATA chief financial officer Kevin Hemenway, who calls the two-lane crossing a must-have for Southcentral Alaska growth.

"Anchorage is out of affordable land and housing," he said. The bridge is meant to open a new, faster entryway into to the expanding Mat-Su.

Critics of the bridge project say it could soak transportation money away from other, more pressing transportation projects, and that talk of state loan guarantees should be a warning sign that more public money is at stake.

"We're really going to have to start deciding: Do we want this project or not?" said Lois Epstein, an engineer and longtime watchdog of the bridge project.

The bridge project will go before a joint state and city committee for approval again next year as part of an update to Anchorage's long-range transportation plan, she said.

ROUTE APPROVED

The Federal Highway Administration signed what is called a record of decision for the project Wednesday, the bridge authority says. That means federal officials have approved a route for the bridge from C Street across Knik Arm, including about 18 miles of associated roads.

It's a "huge milestone," Hemenway said. "It feels like it's been forever, but it took us about six or seven years."

The project still must win key permits and authorization from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service, he said.

"The risk of it not going forward has dramatically dropped, but there's still risk," Hemenway said.

The designation of the Cook Inlet beluga whale as an endangered species in 2008 threatened to stall the bridge project. The National Marine Fisheries Service recently issued an opinion saying the project doesn't appear likely to jeopardize the species, according to the bridge authority.

That decision could set a precedent for other future Cook Inlet projects, said bridge authority consultant Mary Ann Pease. "If there would have been a no-build decision, then you would know Cook Inlet is shut down for business."

Without more money from the state or other sources, tolls to cross the span may have to be higher than expected. In the past, the bridge authority has targeted ticket prices at about $5 -- about the cost of a latte and biscotti, Hemenway said.

But those numbers were based partly on old Mat-Su population estimates. More recent projections by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at UAA show slower growth in the Valley than previously expected. That could mean fewer car trips to Anchorage and fewer people paying tolls.

Other trends, such as the current construction of a new Mat-Su prison, may spur demand for the bridge, Hemenway said.

Consultants for the bridge authority are revising toll revenue and traffic figures, with the results expected early next year.

The project's estimated cost doesn't include money for a link to Gambell and Ingra streets that could be needed within 20 years to divert bridge traffic from downtown.

The bridge authority this fall failed to win a $300 million, low-interest federal loan that would have made the project more attractive to private investors. But bridge authority officials say they can apply again and have better chances now that the project has cleared a key permitting hurdle.

The authority says two international consortia have shown interest in financing, building and running the bridge. One is headed by Bouygues Travaux Publics of France, the other by Macquarie Bank of Australia.

Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or e-mail khopkins@adn.com.


By KYLE HOPKINS
khopkins@adn.com
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