JUNEAU -- The Knik Arm bridge project got a big boost Wednesday afternoon when the Senate Finance Committee passed a much-modified bill that would authorize construction if a low-interest federal loan can be obtained.
After the 5-1 vote in favor, the measure will head to the Senate Rules Committee and then the floor. If it passes there, it would have to go back to the House, where the bill originated and passed last year, because of the Senate changes.
The bill sponsor, Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, described the Senate amendments as "friendly."
Bob French, a bridge opponent and activist from Government Hill who attended the finance committee hearing, conceded that opponents didn't have the votes to stop the bill. He thought the project, though, might have trouble getting approved for a Federal Highway Administration loan under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. The federal government turned down the project for TIFIA loans several times before and the bridge's financial plan is still weak, he said.
The Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, created by the state to build the toll bridge, said the TIFIA loan would cover about $340 million of the $894 million needed to build a starter bridge of two lanes. The remaining financing would come from state bonds and federal highway grants.
One of the amendments approved Wednesday would bar the state from selling bridge bonds unless the authority got the TIFIA loan. The other amendment would require the bridge and toll authority to come back to the Legislature for approval before it could expand the bridge from two lanes to four. Key components like bridge supports and the tunnel approach under Government Hill would be designed from the start for four lanes.
Supporters say the toll bridge would boost the local economy, reduce traffic on the Glenn Highway and open up a huge area at Point MacKenzie for Anchorage housing. Opponents say the bridge would be massively disruptive to established neighborhoods like Government Hill and would soak up too much money at a time when the state is looking at sharp cutbacks in revenue.
"Passing KABATA has been a dream in the Anchorage area since 1960 or before," said Sen. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, before she voted to move the bill. "I served on the Anchorage Assembly and when I served there I asked, 'Why don't we build this bridge? San Francisco built a bridge and they had great development on the other side, why don't we build this bridge?' We just couldn't get it together."
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, the only no vote, said the state appeared to be heading into a recession. That's the wrong time to begin such a project.
"As I look at our financial situation and looking into the future, I see a very dismal dark alley with multiple financial pitfalls," Olson said. "We are flying at full throttle into a hurricane that's going to cause us a fiscal crisis. This is another one of those nails in the coffin of financial responsibility."
One of the Senate's most conservative members, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, sounded like a New Deal Democrat when he suggested that is precisely the time to build a big project.
"It was in the middle of the Depression that they built the bridges and the dams in America, and I think that was very farsighted," Kelly said. "If I find myself in tough economic times, I would feel much better if I had the infrastructure to build my way out of it rather than be sitting in tough economic times and saying, 'Oh my gosh, we don't even have a bridge across there, we can't expand our community.' " (Kelly said later that the only part of the New Deal he liked was its massive construction projects.)
House Bill 23 looked a lot different when the committee passed it Wednesday than it did when it first arrived in the Senate a year ago.
The House approved it 24-15 on April 11, 2013. In doing so, the House eliminated KABATA and directed the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. to take over the project.
But the version approved by the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday restored KABATA, though it also struck the private-public partnership funding concept that had been developed by the authority -- granting a private company rights to build the bridge in return for annual payments from the state to cover construction financing, maintenance and profit.
The bridge now has more conventional financing, with tolls -- currently predicted to be $5 for a passenger vehicle and $18 for commercial trucks -- expected to repay the federal loans and possibly the bonds.
Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat, said he found it ironic that the Senate Finance Committee was approving the bridge as the House Finance Committee, on which he serves, was rejecting money that would have restored lost classroom and school counselor positions.
"It's things like the Knik Arm bridge, that will cost $1 billion without cost overruns, that are eating up the money that we need to move our schools forward," Gara said. "You can either have smart kids or a shiny new bridge, and I would rather have smart kids."
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or (907) 500-7388.
By RICHARD MAUER