State lawmakers on Tuesday voted to transfer $18 million to the University of Alaska to build the contentious extension of Elmore Road through Anchorage's University-Medical District.
The move, inserted into the state's capital budget in the House Finance Committee, directly countered the wishes of Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, who pulled the city's support for the U-Med project in December. Berkowitz cited fiscal uncertainty and neighborhood opposition to the project. He asked for the remaining money in the project's budget to go toward modernizing the Port of Anchorage, the city's only capital request this year.
Instead, two of Anchorage's Republican legislators on the House Finance Committee — Lance Pruitt and Dan Saddler — sponsored an amendment to the capital budget to give the money to the university. The amendment passed 8-3, on majority-minority lines. Pruitt, Saddler, Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake; Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks; Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla; Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau; Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham; and Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, voted for it; Les Gara, D-Anchorage; David Guttenberg and Scott Kawasaki, both Fairbanks, voted against it.
"The last mayor was for it," Pruitt said in an interview, referring to Dan Sullivan, a Republican who left office last year. "I have letters from APU, Providence, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Southcentral Foundation, UAA, everything that surrounds that area — they're all supportive of it."
In April, Jim Johnsen, the president of the University of Alaska, wrote a letter to Senate President Kevin Meyer calling the project "critical to the economic life, safety and vitality" of the area and the university. The land needed for the project is owned by the university.
"To facilitate the project moving forward, the University of Alaska is willing to act as the recipient of the Northern Access funding, should the funding be reappropriated," Johnsen wrote.
Johnsen said the Alaska Department of Transportation would need to be in charge of the construction and maintenance of the project. In 2013, the Legislature allocated $20 million to the municipality of Anchorage after a request from Sullivan, and the city transferred the money to state DOT to handle the development. The DOT suspended work on the project after Berkowitz said he was halting the funding.
A spokesman for Berkowitz didn't immediately return a request for comment. A university spokeswoman also couldn't immediately be reached.
Pruitt said the road is a matter of safety and access to the medical facilities in that area.
As for the last-second nature of the amendment after the Legislature had been meeting for more than 115 days, Pruitt said: "Every year it's a discussion point — I don't think anyone's mind is going to be changed" by public testimony.
The move riled Democratic lawmakers as well as opponents of the road project, who were quick to point to the university's fiscal woes.
"The university is looking at a cut of $50 million to their programs, to their teachers, yet they want to spend more than $18 million for a road?" said Carolyn Ramsey, a member of the group that opposes the road, Citizens for Responsible Development, and is appealing the project to a city development board. "That doesn't exactly make sense."
Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said in an interview that there would be a fight about the amendment when the capital budget hits the House floor.
Nathaniel Herz contributed to this story from Juneau.