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Anchorage mayor visits DC to lobby on federal properties, including possible new transit site

Nathaniel Herz
Bill Roth

Mayor Dan Sullivan traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to ask the state's congressional delegation for help in securing several pieces of federal property for the city, plus funding to complete the beleaguered expansion of the Port of Anchorage.

Sullivan is asking the delegation to introduce legislation allowing the city to buy a 9-acre federal property in Midtown to use for a new transit center, which could also include mixed-income housing and commercial space.

The city is also asking the federal government to give up its claim to several other pieces of property downtown, including the parcel where the Egan Center is located. The city owns those properties now but can only use them for limited purposes based on restrictions dating back to the property's transfer from the federal government in 1922, according to Matt Shuckerow, the press secretary for Rep. Don Young.

Sullivan's trip included meetings with Young and both of Alaska's senators -- plus a visit to the city's lobbyists, as well as to Gov. Sean Parnell's Washington office.

Few of the topics of discussion were new but the discussions with the delegation were in part designed to keep the city's issues from falling "off their radar," Sullivan said in a phone interview.

The 9-acre parcel in Midtown is owned by the National Archives, which the city has been pressing for a sale for 2½ years, Sullivan said.

A spokeswoman for the National Archives declined to comment Thursday. But following initial reluctance, the agency has changed its position in the last year and supports a sale, Sullivan said.

The city wants the delegation to introduce a bill that would allow the city to pay fair market value for the property, at the corner of Denali Street and 40th Avenue, just east of Cuddy Family Midtown Park.

Sullivan said the property is ideal for a new transit center, which would move from its current location downtown and serve as a hub for the system.

"It makes sense to have your transit center in the middle" of the city, Sullivan said.

He added that the size of the property could allow the city to transfer some of the land to developers, for construction of mixed-income housing and potentially commercial use as well.

"We could get a good proportion of the property on the tax rolls," he said.

Anchorage transportation officials have discussed the Midtown hub concept at meetings of the city's Public Transit Advisory Board, where they've said it would require a restructuring of routes.

One member, Jed Smith, said the board was interested in exploring the idea. But he said he had questions about whether a hub and spoke system designed around a Midtown transit center would work if it required riders to transfer buses.

"The way the system works now, transfers are the kiss of death," he said. "Our system is going to have to drastically improve on-time performance in order for Midtown transfers to be all effective."

Lance Wilber, the city's public transportation director, was unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon, a department spokeswoman said.

Sullivan said the city has drafted legislation to transfer the property, and presented it to the delegation with the goal of getting two parallel versions introduced to committees in the House and Senate.

"They're kicking the tires on it," Sullivan said. "And we hope they'll take the leadership role on it."

Shuckerow, the spokesman for Young, said he was unaware of the legislation, adding that the visit from Sullivan was more of an "exploratory meeting."

A spokeswoman for Begich said he was unavailable for comment Thursday, and she said she could not confirm that Begich was considering introducing the legislation to a committee.

A spokesman for Murkowski confirmed that she had an appointment with Sullivan but did not provide additional details.

Sullivan said the city would be using its Washington lobbyists to "keep the heat on our particular issues," given that the state delegation has "a thousand issues on their plate, and we can easily get lost in the shuffle."

The city works with two lobbying firms, which have earned at least $200,000 annually since 2006, according to data collected by OpenSecrets.org.

The principal lobbyists are C.J. Zane, a former chief of staff for Young who works for the firm Blank Rome, and Don Norden, who works for Chambers, Conlon and Hartwell.

Sullivan said he also spent time pushing for language in the national defense bill that would help direct more money toward the expansion of the Port of Anchorage, a project that has suffered through years of delays and rising costs. One request would change a single word, from "shall," to "may," in reference to whether a specific federal agency would handle port funds; Sullivan said he was optimistic that the revision would be included.

His trip spanned a snowstorm that shuttered the federal government, though it left the visiting Anchorage officials unimpressed.

"They had about an 18th of an inch of snow," Sullivan said. "The sun was shining, the grass was green and the government was shut down. Coming from Alaska, it was pretty funny."

The Alaska delegation, however, went to work, saying that they otherwise would have "been laughed out of Washington," according to Sullivan.

In fact, the day of the snowstorm, Murkowski even walked to her office, and was captured on video questioning the need for a sidewalk cleaner that she encountered.

"Mother Nature melts this stuff," she said. "But, you know, this is Washington."

 


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com