JUNEAU -- A new proposal to save the troubled Knik Arm bridge project received its first airing Tuesday before a key state Senate committee.
Two rural senators immediately expressed skepticism and concern about projected costs, which the state estimates at $800 million to $900 million for phase one of a 1.7-mile toll bridge from land-rich and fast-growing Point MacKenzie in the Mat-Su to Government Hill in Anchorage.
The new version of House Bill 23 got only a quick hearing Tuesday but will come back before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage and a committee co-chairman, said.
The latest financial plan to construct the bridge abandons the public-private partnership that had been envisioned last legislative session and instead draws on three sources: federal highway dollars, a federal loan and state revenue bonds. The plan envisions bridge tolls repaying the loan and the bonds.
But if the money falls short, the state would have to step up, under the new version of House Bill 23.
The initial phase would cost up to $900 million, split between those three areas, accounting for overruns and contingencies, according to a half-page financial proposal from the state Department of Transportation and the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, or KABATA, the state agency in charge of the project.
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, questioned why the state would jump into such a huge project when it's facing budget deficits of $1 billion to $2 billion a year.
"I don't know why we are even talking about something like this," Olson said. "You are dealing with millions of dollars that we don't have."
Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said if the project were truly a self-supported toll road, it would have broad support. But that's not how the legislation is written, he said.
A traffic study commissioned last year by the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority still is not complete, according to the agency.
Bridge opponents, including Government Hill residents, have questioned KABATA's earlier traffic projections and say that other studies show the bridge would not draw the traffic needed to pay off the loan and bonds.
Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake and a prime sponsor of the Knik Arm legislation, told the Senate Finance Committee that his Mat-Su House district is fast-growing and that many residents drive into Anchorage to work. He has no doubt the bridge between Mat-Su and Anchorage is justified. He referred to a recent Daily News story about an affordable housing crunch in Anchorage.
"We've got thousands of acres over in the Mat-Su, good land," he said. "And people would like to buy that land and build a home."
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 952-3965.
By LISA DEMER