JUNEAU -- The Alaska Senate voiced strong support for the Knik Arm bridge Saturday, passing a bill that would put the fate of the $900 million-plus project in the hands of federal highway officials.
After accepting two of three Democratic amendments -- itself an unusual occurrence -- the Senate passed the bridge bill 16-4. The measure, approved by the House last year as House Bill 23, now returns there for a concurrence vote on changes made in the Senate, an almost certain prospect.
The bill is a bridge to the Federal Highway Administration. No state bonds can be sold or significant construction begin unless the highway administration approves up to $350 million in low-interest loans under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, a Bill Clinton-era program for big projects.
Derided by conservatives in Congress as one of Alaska's "bridges to nowhere," the project drew the votes of all the Alaska Senate's Republicans -- including its big conservative bloc. When money for the Knik bridge and the other "bridge to nowhere," in Ketchikan, emerged from Congress in 2005, the uproar had a lot to do with the success of the movement to kill congressional earmarks.
Without earmarks, the state has had to look for other ways to pay for the bridge. House Bill 23 uses TIFIA funds first, then up to $300 million in state bonds, federal highway grants and about $5 million from the general fund.
"And oh, by the way, the project's not going forward unless those TIFIA loans are approved," said Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, who carried the bill on the Senate floor. "That's the biggest safety net we have with respect to the state."
Approval won't be easy. Federal officials have already told the state five times that its proposals weren't good enough. But Sen. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, said the latest proposal is different.
There's no longer a requirement, as there was in an earlier proposal, that tolls fully back construction and operation of the bridge. Supporters say the toll, tentatively set at $5 each way for cars and $18 for commercial trucks, is still supposed to pay for bridge maintenance and paying back the 35-year TIFIA loans, at least.
The four no votes were all Democrats but two of those -- Sens. Hollis French of Anchorage and Donny Olson of Golovin -- said during debate that the imperatives of geography would lead to a bridge eventually. They said the time wasn't right now, mainly because of the state's looming financial crisis created by reduced tax receipts from oil production.
The other no votes were Sens. Johnny Ellis, who represents the Government Hill area, where there is strong opposition to the project because of the local disturbances created by bridge access, and Berta Gardner, whose district is the next one south.
McGuire and other supporters said the bridge was needed to get to cheap land and to ease the housing shortage in Anchorage. They also said it would save money for freight haulers, though the bridge -- and the new roads it would require -- wouldn't significantly cut the commuting time to Wasilla.
Ellis offered the first amendment, ordering the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority to not destroy property it obtains for rights of way unless the TIFIA financing is approved. He said he was reacting to anger in Government Hill, which he described as "Anchorage's first neighborhood," over proposed destruction of businesses long before they're needed for the bridge.
McGuire at first opposed the amendment, then huddled with bridge supporters. Moments later, she removed her objection as long as Ellis would agree that derelict buildings already purchased could be removed. He did and the amendment passed without objection.
Gardner sought an amendment that would require release of a long-overdue traffic study before state bonds could be sold.
Fairclough said the amendment wasn't necessary because the federal highway administration wouldn't approve TIFIA loans without the study.
The amendment failed 15-5.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, submitted an amendment that would require "Made in USA" steel and other materials in the project.
"We've been through this battle before," Wielechowski said, referring to another state bridge project, though much smaller, that was found to have used imported steel.
His amendment was adopted without objection.
In the main debate, Olson said the bridge "is a good project."
"It's something that has to be done," Olson said. "Now is not the time."
The state has too many big projects as it heads into troubled economic times, Olson said. "It's not just on the horizon -- the storm is already here."
French agreed, saying a vote on the bridge should be postponed at least until the referendum in August that would reverse the oil-tax cut approved last year.
"This project will cost twice what you think it will, and I think the toll revenues will be about half what you think it will be," French said.
Fairclough said legislators "have the opportunity to some great things this session."
And Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R.-Wasilla, said that he's come to support the project after initial skepticism.
"It's a project that will pay for itself," Dunleavy said.
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-500-7388.
By RICHARD MAUER