The Municipality of Anchorage has filed suit to overturn federal approval of a road from a proposed Knik Arm bridge crossing through the port of Anchorage, saying the road would interfere with port operations.
The lawsuit, filed on the last day the city could legally protest the Federal Highway Administration decision, surprised both proponents and opponents of the project known as the Knik Arm Bridge and and Toll Authority, or KABATA.
After reviewing an environmental impact statement that took into account a number of possible options for the project, the federal agency approved an 8,200-foot bridge between Point MacKenzie and Anchorage. The bridge would come ashore about a mile north of the Port of Anchorage and traffic would move along a "below the bluff" road through the port until it connected with Erickson Street and then the A-C Street corridor.
The lawsuit says municipal and port officials had consistently cautioned the federal agency that any "below the bluff" route would interfere with port operations, in part because the road would be fenced on both sides, effectively cutting off access to port facilities. The road was not envisioned in the city's master plan for the area and was not included in port expansion plans, the lawsuit said.
Tuesday was the deadline to file a legal challenge to the agency's decision, and the municipality waited until the last day to file.
Michael Foster, the chairman of KABATA, which has been working closely with Anchorage officials to promote the project and line up investors for the estimated $700 million enterprise, was caught off guard.
"I was a little disappointed," Foster said Thursday. "We weren't aware that the muni was going to file."
Two weeks ago, Foster and an Alaska contingent including Sen. Linda Menard, R-Wasilla, and state officials had attended an investment conference in New York to pitch the project. They took with them a video of Mayor Dan Sullivan giving his enthusiastic support. And in fact the Anchorage mayor has long been on board with KABATA, including writing letters to lawmakers seeking state funding.
Foster said he and other KABATA officials meet regularly with Sullivan and port director Bill Sheffield and that concerns about the road alignment have largely been raised by Sheffield.
"I believed we were working through the alignment and right-of-way issues," Foster said. "So it surprised me."
"Just two weeks ago he was on film saying 'Let's get it going,'" Foster added.
But municipal officials said Thursday that the lawsuit is an effort by the city to protect the port.
"While the mayor remains a big supporter of the Knik Arm Crossing, he's duty bound to protect the port," said Sarah Erkmann, a spokeswoman for Sullivan.
She said Sullivan would support another route, including one of the alternatives that the agency considered but didn’t pick that goes on top of the bluff.
According to the environmental impact statement and the record of decision filed by the federal highway agency, the "above the bluff" options were problematic because they were partly on Elmendorf Air Force Base and were also more expensive.
Emily Cotter, a spokeswoman for the port, said the port is not suggesting a particular alternative, but wants the court to send the matter back to the Federal Highway Administration for further consideration of the effects of the road alignment on the port.
The lawsuit alleges the Federal Highway Administration violated environmental laws and administrative procedures by not fully considering the port's concerns.
Foster said he plans to meet again soon with Sullivan and port officials. He's hopeful they can come to some sort of resolution and keep the project on track.
KABATA expects to formally solicit bids for potential business partners this summer and have investors in place by next year. The reception in New York was good, Foster said, and the KABATA team had 17 meetings in two days with potential partners.
"Hopefully, it is my goal to try to get all this resolved so we can continue to move forward," he said.
Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com