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House lawmakers vote to keep Knik Arm bridge, Susitna dam money in budget

Dermot Cole

In the encyclopedia of high-priced projects that have yet to be built in Alaska, the Knik Arm Crossing and the Susitna-Watana dam would fill a couple of volumes, along with the gas pipeline, the road to Juneau and the railroad to Canada.

Excluding the proposed natural gas pipeline, the bridge across Knik Arm and the Susitna dam are among the highest-profile items in the proposed capital budget, though the appropriations sought this year are relatively small compared to the estimated ultimate construction costs.

The Knik Arm crossing is set to receive $55 million in funding in the House version of the capital budget, while the Susitna project is in line to get $20 million, which is about $100 million less than backers of the dam projected a year ago.

On Monday afternoon, what was supposed to be the day after the Legislature ended its session, the House debated amending the capital budget, a document that had been in circulation for just a day-and-a-half. The House plans to continue debate on the spending plan Tuesday.

Efforts to strip funding for the bridge project, Susitna and the road work set for the University-Medical district in Anchorage highlighted the debate Monday, which turned into a discussion on how many big projects the state can afford.

Wasilla Republican Rep. Mark Neuman said the Knik Arm bridge to him is about safety, with proponents seeking $5 million from the state and $50 million from the federal government to advance the project. Neuman told a story about his daughter driving the Glenn Highway and having to pull over twice one day because she was afraid of the traffic in a snowstorm.

“She was so afraid for her life she had to pull off the side of the road,” he said.

He said the Knik Arm crossing would provide an alternate route for tens of thousands of drivers. “This is not just a project that builds a bridge, it’s an alternative traffic route that makes our roads safer,” he said.

Rep. Harriett Drummond, D-Anchorage, said the road connections on both ends of the proposed bridge would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and no one has shown how those would be funded.

“On the Anchorage side, we can’t even begin to estimate what it’s going to cost to bring that bridge traffic down in the right place, instead of coming down through the center of downtown,” she said.

Anchorage Rep. Max Gruenberg said the Knik Arm bridge backers are putting this forward one piece at a time, with no details on the full cost. He said this is like the camel getting its nose under the tent, with one exception. “At least the camel knows the size of the tent,” he said.

Wasilla Rep. Wes Keller said there is no choice and that Glenn Highway expansion would be needed if there is no bridge.  

“If we don’t spend money on the bridge, we’re going to be spending money on a six-lane highway instead of a four-lane highway,” Keller said.

Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, said road contractors in other regions are worried that many projects outside of Anchorage will be sacrificed to pay for this one. “At least wait until the traffic flow studies have come out,” he said.

Rep. Shelly Hughes, R-Palmer, said a DOT planner wrote a letter saying that no projects would be delayed by adding the Knik bridge to the state highway plan. “This is a bridge to somewhere,” she said.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara said the Glenn Highway is going to be expanded under current plans whether or not the Knik Bridge is built. “This project won’t change the expenditures on the Glenn Highway,” he said.

The bridge is estimated to cost between $782 million and $882  million, while the road connections on each end could add close to $600 million, he said.

“It’s going to be very close to one-and-a-half billion dollars without cost overruns, and that money’s got to come from somewhere,” he said.

Multiple megaprojects

After a 12-27 vote to keep the bridge money in the budget, the House held a similar debate on whether the state can afford the Susitna-Watana project, before also keeping that money by a vote of 6-28.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson said that with multiple billions proposed for gas pipelines, the road to Juneau, the Ambler road, the Knik Arm bridge, the Umiat Road, the road to Tanana and other projects, the state can’t afford the Susitna dam.

“I think the administration’s perspective is we will throw a little bit at every project, fire the cinders, keep them all sort of burning,” he said.

“It’s not working very well,” Josephson said.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, argued that the hydro plant is needed and that the more power derived from hydro, the more gas that could be sold in the gas pipeline to help pay for the dam. He said the dam would be financed with revenue bonds over many decades, with fees paid by consumers.

Johnson said if there is one thing that former lawmakers tell him about what they regret that they didn't do in office is that they didn’t get enough projects built. He said in the future he wants to be able to tell his grandkids, “we made a decision to advance this state, not only with Susitna, but with a gas line and a bridge.”

“Asphalt is our friend. I’ve offended a lot of people just now. Bulldozers are our friend. They create jobs, they put our people to work,” he said.

Hughes said the state should not “shortchange this project.”

The state has appropriated more than $170 million for the Susitna dam in recent years, but the $20 million in the budget is about one-sixth of what project supporters had hoped for a year ago. To keep the project going, the backers would have to support a much higher spending level in the next two years, about $300 million more, according to state estimates.

In other topics debated Monday, the House also defeated an amendment to stop the funding of the University-Medical District road project in Anchorage.

Democrats said the project was included in the capital budget a year ago without public notice and the neighborhood community councils opposed the project. Republicans said the expansion is needed and that recreational needs and the “viewshed” are not as important as providing better access to medical facilities.