Once a national symbol of federal spending gone awry, the Alaska Legislature is debating whether to keep alive the dream of building a "Bridge to Nowhere."
Under consideration is extending the authority to issue up to $600 million in bonds for the long-proposed Knik Arm bridge -- a project that, along with another "Bridge to Nowhere" in Southeast Alaska, was lionized by watchdogs and the national media as an example of government waste in the mid-2000s.
But like so many big dreams in Alaska, this one never died.
As the state legislative session winds down, lawmakers worked throughout Thursday and Friday morning deciding whether to place the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. (AHFC) in charge of the bonding authority, which may or may not get the bridge finally built. Friday morning, the Alaska House took control of the project away from the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, otherwise known as KABATA.
House Bill 23, which folds KABATA into AHFC and creates the Knik Crossing Development Corp., passed in 24-15. Most Republicans voted in favor of the bill, while Democrats stood against the megaproject. Next, the bill moves to the Alaska Senate for consideration.
KABATA dimantling has been swift. A recent audit found KABATA's toll and traffic projections -- key figures in determining whether a billion-dollar bridge pencils -- were “overly optimistic.”
Speaking before the House Rules Committee this week, Rep. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, said placing the project under the direction of AHFC “brings the best team forward as partners.”
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said this week KABATA is now required to promote the project. If AHFC takes charge, the housing authority would present the project more objectively, but only if that language is included in the bill, he said. “It gets rid of the cheerleading function that has caused KABATA to overstate the projected revenue the project will create, and therefore understate the state’s possibly billions of dollars of liability,” Gara said.
Still, when you're talking about building a bridge from Alaska's largest city to a vast, undeveloped hinterland, don't you need a cheerleader? The "Bridge to Nowhere" is a dream that's been around for decades, thanks to cheerleaders. Here are some highlights during the quest to erect the Knik Arm bridge, many of which come courtesy of KABATA:
1923: Alaska Railroad engineers toy with the idea of a causeway across Knik Arm to shorten the rail line between Seward and Fairbanks.
1954: A proposal is floated to construct a causeway and power plant that would generate electricity from Cook Inlet's immense tides -- an idea that would come up several times in the future, including in the 2000s.
1955: The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce commissions a study to look at the economic and defense benefits of a causeway across Knik Arm.
1970s: The Knik Arm crossing emerges into a plan similar to what would be considered in the early 21st century: A bridge and highway span from Alaska's largest city to the sparsely populated hinterland of Point Mackenzie.
1970s: Visionaries dream up “Seward’s Success” across Cook Inlet -- a proposal to build a climate-controlled suburb connected by a series of domed, heated malls encompassing more than 600,000 feet and costing $800 million. A gondola-style aerial tramway would cross Knik Arm. Sadly for those who hate winter, the project never advanced beyond the promotional stage.
1972: The Alaska Department of Transportation launches a study on the geological challenges that might impact the location and design of a proposed highway across Knik Arm.
March 21, 1981: Leaders from Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough fly across icy Knik Arm to celebrate “Knik Crossing Day," though, of course, no bridge has been built yet.
1983: State and federal transportation officials again spend time and money preparing studies on Knik Arm, concluding it makes sense to pursue the project, especially compared to other state infrastructure projects.
1984: More money is spent on an environmental-impact statement assessing the potential risks of building a bridge across Knik Arm. At the time, the state is awash in oil tax revenue, thanks to high oil prices and growing crude production on the North Slope. And the Alaska Legislature is spending like mad. But with a couple years, the good times would end when oil prices crash and send Alaska into a deep recession, along with sinking dreams for a Knik Arm bridge.
Early 2000s: U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens lands an appropriation to build a ferry to move people and vehicles between Anchorage and Point Mackenzie. Meantime, U.S. Rep. Don Young is working toward reviving the Knik Arm bridge, along with another bridge in Ketchikan. And at Point Mackenzie, the Mat-Su Borough is constructing a port, basically a giant slab of gravel.
2003: As Alaska's congressional delegation is busy going after money for bridges and ferries, the state legislature creates the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority -- KABATA -- to “...develop, stimulate, and advance the economic welfare of the state and further the development of public transportation systems in the vicinity of the Upper Cook Inlet with construction of a bridge to span Knik Arm and connect the Municipality of Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.”
2004-05: The project makes some headway only to fall flat. Young inserts $200 million for project studies and designs into a $275 billion transportation bill. But Congress later pulls the earmark amid criticisms over the Anchorage-based project as well as the proposed Gravina Island bridge to Ketchikan, a second “bridge to nowhere.” Still, within a year of its conception, KABATA had received about $5 million in federal funding and $200,000 from the state. And the following year, Alaska allocated $93.6 million for the bridge along with a small amounts of state money.
2008: Young held sway over the federal highway spending for some time, but after five years and $41.5 million directed toward KABATA, the project hit a roadblock -- or bulldog, Sarah Palin. She wanted answers, like what does the state have to show for the millions spent on the project thus far? She requested the project be reviewed after a prolonged period of little to no results. The KABATA folks promised to behave; they also pledged increased openness. The project still was seen as a long way out, but the next step was for the Federal Highway Administration to sign a “record of decision.”
2009: The Federal Highway Administration releases a study showing there's a 90 percent probability the two phases of the bridge will cost approximately $1.5 billion. The first phase is a two-lane bridge and an access road through downtown Anchorage; phase two is a four-lane bridge and an access road connecting to the Seward Highway.
2011: During the state legislative session, a bill to provide KABATA with an additional $150 million reserve fund for the development phase didn't pass out of committee. And another bill, which would make the state liable for any cost overruns -- assuring little or no risk for the private entities in the public-private partnership -- also didn't make it out of committee.
2012: The status of the project remained unchanged from the previous year, sitting in financial limbo.