Compass: Knik Arm bridge will be well worth the work

The Knik Arm Crossing is a state of Alaska project. It is being developed to address the transportation needs of Alaskans. It will create 1,500 full-time jobs during the four years of construction and will lead to thousands more after the bridge opening. It will improve access to land available for residential, commercial and industrial development. The bridge will create a second route between the Mat-Su and Anchorage, and in addition to serving as a route for commuters and commercial vehicles, it will be an alternative to the Glenn Highway for emergencies or in the event of an evacuation.

Drivers don't often realize how much environmental study is required to build a road. The protection of our resources is important, and the Knik Arm Crossing project staff has worked through the federal and state environmental requirements to achieve the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and the "build" Record of Decision (ROD) from the Federal Highway Administration.

Part of the environmental work prior to the ROD was to identify routes for the project. The FHWA selected the Erickson Street route on the Anchorage side, which creates a "cut and cover" tunnel under Erickson Street in the Government Hill area, because it had the fewest impacts while still addressing the project's purpose and need. The future tunnel places the bridge traffic under Erickson Street in order to mitigate the impacts to the surrounding area. Because the tunnel has a "cover," or "lid," it allows the neighborhood to remain cohesive. Additional park amenities can be included on the tunnel lid, including green space, trails, parking, playgrounds and general interpretation of the neighborhood.

The FHWA requires certification that all necessary right of way and environmental permits are secured before they will authorize construction to proceed. Since receiving the ROD, the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority has been addressing the remaining preconstruction tasks concurrently. This is standard practice when preparing a project for construction. Along with environmental permitting, subsurface investigations and contract document development, right of way acquisition is an essential preconstruction activity.

Right of way acquisition can take years to complete and is governed by federal and state law. We follow a strict, formal process that ensures property owners are fairly compensated and residents are relocated to new homes. Businesses are also eligible for relocation benefits and the authority works closely with them as they determine what is best for their business.

Using federal funds, the authority purchased three properties to make way for the future tunnel. In order to increase the safety of the surrounding neighborhood, we are preparing to have the three vacant buildings removed to prevent them from becoming a target for illegal and unwanted activities while securing the remaining right of way needs. We will reseed the area, and maintain the existing trees and shrubs until construction begins.

Authority staff approaches all of the work for the bridge with a sense of urgency and determination because that is the only way a project of this size and complexity moves from concept to construction. The Knik Arm Crossing is a state of Alaska project and will be a facility for all Alaskans, one that serves to diversify the economy of Southcentral Alaska.

At its most fundamental level, the crossing is being built for the same reason that other roads and bridges are built -- to provide infrastructure for Alaskans to use as they pursue their lives and livelihoods.

Andrew J. Niemiec is an engineer and executive director of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority.