Stung by a critical legislative audit and a House-passed bill that would put it out existence, the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority announced this week it had tentatively chosen a contractor team to review the socioeconomic data underlying its optimistic toll and traffic projections.
In a prepared statement sent to reporters, KABATA said it had chosen the Australian-based consulting firm Cardno Inc. and Anchorage planners Agnew::Beck to conduct the study and report back no later than Sept. 30. The announcement didn't say how much KABATA expected to pay for the study.
However, a notice on the Alaska Department of Transportation website said the contract had been awarded Wednesday to Cardno for an estimated cost of $100,000 to $150,000. There was no reference to Agnew::Beck, the Anchorage partner, in the notice.
KABATA spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said the award was still subject to protest by a losing bidder, and so wasn't final. A contract won't be signed until the 10-day protest period is over, she said.
McCarthy said there aren't many firms capable of such a socio-economic review, which will be led by Cardno's Portland office with local expertise provided by Agnew::Beck. She said the review was KABATA's response to the Legislative audit, which criticized traffic and toll studies as being too rosy.
KABATA had asked the Legislature this year to back the proposed bridge to the Mat-Su Borough with a maximum obligation in state funds of $1.1 billion should toll revenues fall short or a disaster occur that damaged or destroyed the bridge before it was fully paid for.
KABATA's plan is to build the bridge and its approaches through a public-private partnership in which a contractor would design, finance, construct, maintain and upgrade the bridge, with the state obligated to make regular payments for 35 years beginning with the day it opened for traffic.
The state hoped to eventually collect enough toll revenue that the bridge would be self-sustaining and eventually contributing money to other transportation projects. But the Legislative audit predicted the state treasury would have to subsidize the bridge for years longer than KABATA had predicted, sending jitters through Juneau.
The audit landed in the Capitol April 6, just days before the House was to vote on the KABATA bill. In the ensuing uproar, Republican House members from Anchorage, to the dismay of their Mat-Su colleagues, substituted a bill that would transfer the project to the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., whose director said his first order of business would be to review the traffic projections. That bill passed the House but got stuck in the Senate, where Republican leaders were backing the original measure. In the end, nothing got through the Legislature and KABATA lived on.
Though they initially criticized the audit's findings, KABATA officials decided their projections needed an independent "peer review," spokeswoman McCarthy said, and asked consulting firms to submit proposals.
Rep. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, one of the leaders behind moving the project to AHFC, said Thursday she appreciated the idea behind the study but thought it didn't go far enough. The agency's traffic numbers also needed scrutiny, not just the underlying population and economic development data behind them, she said.
Costello said KABATA's credibility had been damaged and the project should still be moved to the housing agency, one of the Legislature's favorite bureaucracies because of its record at financing and constructing projects and its willingness to take on other tasks, like the proposed instate gas line.
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER