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Despite debate over costs, KABATA defends vision of Knik Arm Bridge

Laurel Andrews

Executives from the Knik Arm Bridge Toll Authority defended the proposed billion-dollar bridge once deemed the “road to nowhere” at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce luncheon Monday.

The Knik Arm Bridge is envisioned as a 9,200-foot, two-lane toll bridge spanning Knik Arm from Anchorage’s Government Hill neighborhood to the Matansuka-Susitna Valley, less than 2 miles away across Cook Inlet.  Building such a bridge has been a pipedream of developers for more than 50 years, but plans to construct the bridge have advanced slowly in recent years.

In 2003, the Legislature created the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority (KABATA) to pursue the project. Billed as a public-private partnership, the project was seeded with $110 million from federal and state governments.  

During Alaska's 2011 legislative session, a bill to provide the agency with an additional $150 million didn't pass out of committee, and in 2012, the status of the project remained unchanged, sitting in apparent financial limbo.

This year’s legislative session seemed to hold the promise of advancing the project. Two bills, House Bill 23 and Senate Bill 13, were offered that would increase the agency’s bonds from $500 million to $600 million. But a state audit released as the final days of the session threw a wrench in the gears.

On Monday, KABATA Executive Director Andrew Niemiec began by addressing the audit released in early April that he called a “serious hit to our credibility.” The agency had claimed that tolls from the bridge will eventually pay for the project, which is forecast to cost around $1.6 billion to build. However, the audit by the state’s Legislative Audit Division said KABATA’s traffic flow estimates were “unreasonably optimistic” and thus “the projected cash flows to the state are likely overstated as a result.” That would leave the state responsible to make up any shortfall in toll revenue.

The audit, released just days before the end of the legislative session, caused “last-minute drama in Juneau” around House Bill 23, according to Niemiec. At the 11th hour, lawmakers amended the bill to fold the agency into the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC). That change would remove the current seven-member board of directors, putting the future of the project into a different set of hands. But HB 23 remained stalled in the Senate at the end of the session, and lawmakers will return to it next year.

KABATA spokesperson Shannon McCarthy said the agency is moving forward regardless of the political uncertainty surrounding HB23.

In response to the audit, KABATA is going to re-examine its traffic and revenue projections in an attempt to contest the audit’s assessment of its studies while increasing its public outreach campaign, Niemiec said.

Right now, KABATA is in the process of purchasing the right of ways for land surrounding the proposed bridge, and  Niemiec said that construction could begin as early as 2015.

If the bridge is constructed, it is expected to be completed in around four years, using 75 million pounds of steel and 4.5 million cubic yards of gravel and ground-up rocks called rip rap. The agency says it is expected to create around 1,500 jobs in Alaska for each year of construction. Initially built with two lanes, the bridge could add two lanes around 2030 if traffic warranted it.

Toll rates would be determined by the board of directors, but current modeling rests at $5 one-way for residential vehicles, and more for commercial traffic.

Would a $10-a-day toll affect the bridge’s traffic, when commuters are already used to driving the toll-free Glenn Highway to the Mat-Su? In Seattle, when tolls were instituted on the SR-520 highway, traffic flow diverted to other highways, as commuters presumably changed their routes to avoid the fees, and consultants in Oregon warned of a similar scenario in instituting a toll on the highway connecting Portland, Ore. And Vancouver, Wash.

Still, KABATA spokesperson McCarthy said that the bridge is an “essential project” for the area, given that the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Municipality of Anchorage together hold 54 percent of the state’s population, but only one road leads from the Mat-Su into Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city.

Studies commissioned by KABATA show that “there’s a lot of need for developing land that is not being met currently” in the Anchorage area, McCarthy said. Most new housing construction is also happening in the Mat-Su valley, and the bridge would play a role in encouraging its growth, she said.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com