Anchorage files lawsuit over Knik Arm bridge project

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services
The Port MacKenzie terminal building in summer 2010. The Anchorage skyline can be seen across Knik Arm. Photo by KEN GRAHAM / For the Mat-Su Borough

The Municipality of Anchorage has filed a lawsuit to force the federal government to drop its green light for the controversial Knik Arm bridge project.

The Sullivan administration lawsuit says the road connection to the Anchorage side of the bridge would be a big problem for the expanding port.

"Adverse impacts on the Port of Anchorage can indirectly impact all Alaskans who rely on that Port for the transshipment of goods. Connector road construction under the Selected Alternative will irreparably injure the Port's vital role in the regional economy," said the city's lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed this week in U.S. District Court. It says the court should require the Federal Highway Administration to set aside the Record of Decision it issued last December giving the Knik Arm Bridge project an OK to go ahead.

The suit says the Federal Highway Administration ignored the city's concerns about the impact on the port and failed to explore alternatives to make it work. It asks the court to vacate the Record of Decision and send it back to the agency and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood "for additional investigation and explanation."

The bridge would connect Anchorage to mostly undeveloped Mat-Su land near Point MacKenzie. Planners estimate a cost of about $700 million and critics nationally ridiculed it as a "bridge to nowhere" when Congress provided initial money to help. Supporters argue it's needed to open up the Mat-Su land for housing and industry, creating opportunities for economic development.

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan has been a big backer of the bridge project, and its planners were surprised by the lawsuit. They had featured a video of Sullivan supporting the project in New York just a little over two weeks ago as they wooed potential private partners. Sullivan even wrote legislative leaders this spring urging them to give $150 million in state money to support the project. The Legislature did not provide the funding, although it will be considered again next year.

Sullivan spokeswoman Sarah Erkmann said Thursday that the mayor requested the money because the administration still fully supports the project, "just not at the expense of port operations."

"You'll note that the lawsuit does not reference anything about Government Hill, impact on parks, impact on downtown, or any other unrelated concerns," Erkmann wrote in an email. "Mayor Sullivan is confident that a mutually agreeable solution can be found, but he is duty bound to protect the assets of the Municipality of Anchorage."

The lawsuit says that municipal planners started in 2005 expressing concerns with any bridge design that would bring more traffic into the congested port area. The city supported only "above the bluff" alternatives that would have avoided the port area. Then-Mayor Mark Begich objected that other routes under consideration would have significant costs and impacts on the Government Hill neighborhood and the Port of Anchorage.

"Defendants nonetheless rejected all Above-the-Bluff alignments due to military constraints and financial infeasibility. Only Below-the-Bluff alignments were carried forward for further review and all of the variants contemplated construction of a roadway traversing the eastern (upland) side of (the port)," the city's lawsuit said.

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, according to the lawsuit.

"The roadway leading from the bridge on the Anchorage side will pass through a material portion of the newly expanded Port of Anchorage, at grade or upon a buttressed fill, effectively eliminating the usefulness of the Dry Barge Berth and materially impairing the functionality of other portions of the (port)," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said the project will also interfere with the port's plan to extend the railroad line to berths in the most seismically stable areas of the port.

"In the event of a serious earthquake, the (Knik Arm Crossing) Project alignment creates a risk of interfering with emergency operations," the lawsuit said.

The city also wants the court to rule that the final environmental impact statement for the project violates the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to deal with the port issues. The city wants the federal government to be forced to pay the cost of its lawsuit, including attorney's fees.

The project is being planned by the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, created by the Legislature in 2003. The bridge authority's chairman, Michael Foster, said Thursday that the state attorney general's office is evaluating the municipal lawsuit.

"We are confident in the Record of Decision that was issued by the Federal Highway Administration. KABATA is moving forward with right-of-way acquisition, permitting and procurement activities," Foster said.

Reach Sean Cockerham at or 257-4344.