Knik Arm bridge debate runs into Senate roadblocks

Lisa Demer

Legislation to push along the billion-dollar Knik Arm bridge is encountering trouble in the state Senate though it cleared a key House committee last week.

The bridge is "a mega-project" and backers should be coming forward with more detailed financial information, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told bridge supporters testifying Monday.

Senators on the Finance Committee are raising concerns about how the project will be financed, the amount of state subsidies needed, and whether consultants on the project have provided accurate projections of traffic and population growth.

The Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority -- the state corporation created by the Legislature in 2003 -- wants $150 million from the state to finance the project's early years until bridge tolls can generate enough money to cover construction and operational costs. Critics say the state could be liable for much more if projected bridge traffic fails to materialize and toll money falls short.

"Where's the data to convince the committee that the exposure to the state is worth it?" Stedman asked Michael Foster, chairman of the bridge authority board.

The Finance Committee is considering Senate Bill 80, sponsored by Sen. Linda Menard, R-Wasilla. The measure passed the Senate Transportation Committee more than a year ago and got its first hearing of this legislative session on Monday. Among other things, it would establish a state reserve fund to provide a backstop if tolls fall short. But separate bills to actually appropriate state dollars for the bridge fund aren't getting traction.

A House counterpart to Menard's legislation, House Bill 158 by Rep. Mark Neuman, cleared the Finance Committee there last week. It hasn't yet been scheduled for debate before the full House.

Menard and Neuman, R-Wasilla, serve on the board of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, known as KABATA, as do two state officials and three public members.

Menard told senators Monday she had a new acronym for the bridge: BOSS, for Bridge of Statewide Significance. That's a sound bite -- it's not the bridge's real name, Shannon McCarthy, spokeswoman for the bridge authority, said later.

The project was jump-started years ago with federal money, but Congress since essentially banned earmarks. In fact, earmarks for the Knik Arm bridge and a proposed bridge to Gravina Island in Southeast Alaska were stripped away after the projects were ridiculed as "bridges to nowhere." The Legislature still funneled $93 million in previously earmarked money to the Knik Arm project.

The bridge would span 1.7 miles across Knik Arm from just north of downtown Anchorage to mostly undeveloped land near Point MacKenzie in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The $1 billion estimated cost includes 18 miles of road work leading up to the bridge on both sides of the arm, McCarthy said.

Bridge supporters say it will open up vast acreage for housing and economic development, provide a second route into the growing Mat-Su Borough, and relieve costs of upgrading the Glenn Highway to accommodate future traffic demands.

Opponents dispute that enough drivers will pay the toll, which would start at $5 one way and go up, and say the bridge won't save commuters time between Anchorage and the Mat-Su hubs of Wasilla or Palmer.

The bridge authority hopes to issue a request for proposals this spring with the goal of contracting with a consortium of private companies to finance, build and run the toll bridge.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, asked Foster, the bridge authority chairman, to address concerns from Scott Goldsmith, a professor with the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, that bridge backers are misusing ISER's population growth figures.

"Please stop implying that the KABATA population projections for the Matsu Borough, whatever they are, are 'in line with other forecasts' including those of the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER)," Goldsmith wrote in a March 22 memo to Foster. Ellis distributed the memo to senators Monday.

Among other specifics, Goldsmith noted that ISER has projected that the Mat-Su Borough's population will hit 170,000 by 2035, which is 12 percent lower than the bridge authority's prediction of 191,000, a figure that Foster used in a Daily News opinion piece last year and in letters to community councils. The Goldsmith memo's subject line: "Distribution of Misinformation Regarding KABATA Population Projections."

Foster, the bridge authority chairman, told Ellis he is working on a formal response, but said that when he is attributing figures to ISER, he uses the institute figures, not the bridge authority's projections. He said he thinks they aren't too far off.

"The bridge is built for the future, for future growth, for future transportation," Foster said.

The bridge itself will induce growth in the Point MacKenzie area, Grant Holland, a consultant for the bridge authority, told senators.

It's not needed to handle today's traffic, Foster acknowledged. The Glenn Highway -- the sole road out of Anchorage to the north -- may be congested at times but so far can handle traffic except during the first big snowfall or the Alaska State Fair, he said.

Ellis asked Holland, a vice president with consulting firm CDM Smith, to address why the Legislature should trust the authority's traffic projections, when those for another toll project -- the road through the Whittier tunnel -- were way off.

"Someone failed spectacularly," Ellis said.

Holland said he wasn't familiar with the Whittier tunnel figures but said that Wilbur Smith Associates, which merged last year with CDM, had an excellent track record at projecting traffic for eventual toll roads.

Lois Epstein, an engineer who serves on the technical advisory committee for AMATS, a city/state transportation planning group, flew to Juneau at her own expense to testify against Senate Bill 80. The hearing ended before she got her turn so she distributed written copies of her comments to senators, aides and reporters.

She wrote that the bridge scored very low in the AMATS process, getting just 12 out of 30 possible points. It will draw money away from other, more needed projects, she said.

The best reason to delay action, she wrote, might be that a state audit is under way. That audit will review whether traffic flow projections are reasonable.

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