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Our View: Time's up for KABATA

The Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority appeared well on its way to raising its borrowing limit to $600 million, establishing a reserve fund of $10 million and committing the state to cover any shortfall in toll revenue for decades to come.

Then came last week's Legislative Budget and Audit Committee report, which confirmed what KABATA critics have been saying for years: KABATA and its consultants, in their zeal to see the bridge built, have been unreasonably optimistic in their projections of traffic and toll revenues.

A few days after the report's release, Rep. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, introduced an amendment to House Bill 23 that sought to find a credible alternative to KABATA rather than throwing a lot of state money at it.

Her amendment is a tough read for KABATA and its supporters. It strips the agency of all authority and transfers its duties and assets to the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. In an unnecessary gesture to ease the pain, KABATA staff would get another year's pay for service as an advisory board, but then the authority would go away.

Costello said her amendment aims to restore the credibility of the Knik Arm Crossing project. She's willing to burn bridges to do it because KABATA has not earned the public's trust.

The budget and audit committee's extreme skepticism of KABATA's traffic and revenue figures is just the latest challenge to KABATA's projections, which have been repeatedly questioned by knowledgeable reviewers like Alaska economist Scott Goldsmith, former Alaska Science and Technology chief Jamie Kenworthy and others.

Further, many Alaskans have questioned why, if this project is so solid and needed, the feds are no longer interested. The reason for private investors' enthusiasm is obvious: it springs not from a business analysis but from assurances that all the project's risk will be shifted to the Alaska public.

As Republican Sen. Bert Stedman said last year, you could get anyone to build anything on terms like those.

The prospect of the state guaranteeing all losses -- no matter how big, for no matter how long -- is the only thing that has kept KABATA and its plans from sinking beneath the muddy waters of Knik Arm well before now.

Right now the cost of the bridge is pegged at about $1.5 billion, but that's another projection about which we remain skeptical. (Let's keep in mind the painful lessons of the Port of Anchorage expansion.)

Costello's amendment was in limbo Wednesday as lawmakers tried to figure out whether the project, if transferred to AHFC, would still qualify for federal transportation money. If not, the bill calling for all Alaskans to underwrite the KABATA project may go straight to the House floor. If that's the case, House members who care about the prudent use of public money will vote no.

Otherwise, the Legislature should move the project to AHFC, an agency with a track record of profitable performance and credibility. It's well beyond time for a bridge project based on something more than booster spin.

BOTTOM LINE: Move Knik bridge project AHFC? Good idea.