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Move afoot to switch responsibility for Knik Arm Crossing to different state agency

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- Keeping the public in the dark, legislators worked Thursday in a rapidly emptying Capitol to bridge differences on a controversial bridge project, the Knik Arm Crossing.

A draft compromise being reviewed by legislators would move most of the responsibility for the billion-dollar bridge project from the independent Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority into the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, according to Sens. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, and Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage.

The proposal would take away from KABATA the responsibility for "construction" of the toll bridge across Knik Arm, and leave the agency with responsibility for "operation and management" of the bridge -- essentially collecting the tolls.

The Legislature appears likely to act on House Bill 23 before getting updated bridge traffic projections. KABATA has spent years and millions of dollars and has provided optimistic traffic projections showing it could pay back borrowed money with bridge toll revenues.

A legislative audit last year raised serious doubts among legislators, including some bridge supporters, about the viability of KABATA's plans and its financial projections. The resulting loss of confidence in the agency stalled the project that year, while new traffic studies were to be conducted. Those never materialized, but supporters kept pushing the project.

Some legislators wanted the Knik Arm Crossing project to be moved to the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., another independent state corporation with a strong track record of accomplishments.

Gov. Sean Parnell late last year proposed a new plan, abandoning the public-private model for the project that KABATA had long championed. He instead wanted it to be a fully publicly financed project.

But the project would still require borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars, with tolls defraying the total cost.

The Senate earlier approved that plan over the objections of some Democratic members, but the House of Representatives balked. House bridge supporters, including top Republican leaders, delayed bringing House Bill 23 to the floor for a vote, but when they finally did, it narrowly failed 20-18, with two absent. Passage requires 21 votes.

In the House, several influential Republicans joined the opposition.

House and Senate leaders Wednesday evening and Thursday morning appointed members of a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate bills.

Heading that committee in the House is Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, joined by Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, and Rep Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage. For the Senate,  Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, will chair, with Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, as members.

That committee has not announced any public meetings, as did an earlier conference committee on education. But legislators say a draft bill that includes the switch to putting the Department of Transportation in charge of the project is circulating privately.

Also in that draft is a prohibition on the state issuing bonds to finance the project unless it first gets approval for subsidized federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act bonds. They are also reviewing whether the new project structure would still qualify the project for the TIFIA bonds.  

Also hanging in the balance Thursday night was House Bill 278, the education bill.  An expected meeting to finalize an agreement had yet to happen as of late Thursday. Meyer chaired the Senate conference committee on that bill, and said he now expects approval by mid-day Friday.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat@alaskadispatch.com.