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Compass: Time to shut down KABATA

  • Author:
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published January 6, 2014

It is beyond frustrating that KABATA (Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority) continues to spend our money advocating for a project which has failed all tests of financial feasibility and, if ever built, would be detrimental to a healthy economic future for Southcentral Alaska.

The governor's new interest in abandoning the public-private partnership model confirms that the private sector does not see this as a financially viable project, despite huge public subsidies. Revenue Commissioner Rodell's desire "to move the debate away from . . . whether the bridge will pay for itself" reflects the Administration's rejection of KABATA's previous inappropriately optimistic cost estimates. Both Parnell and Rodell should carefully consider the following issues before making further comments.

• The prospect of affordable housing has been KABATA's primary justification for the bridge (after we debunked their claim about reducing the travel distance between Anchorage and Wasilla). Why can't we get over this? How can housing in an undeveloped area of the Mat-Su be less expensive than housing in Anchorage? Who is going to pay for the roads, waterlines, sewers, gas, power and phone lines, schools, police and fire protection necessary to support this new housing? Is anyone realistically suggesting that the bridge will be paid for primarily through tolls collected from those who need affordable housing?

Affordable housing developments in Eagle River and Wasilla only occurred because the state chose to build necessary infrastructure instead of increasing the size of our Permanent Fund dividends. When all costs are considered, housing built on currently under-utilized land in Anchorage is always going to cost less than raw land development. Through property taxes, utility rates and reduced PFD's, we all continue to pay those "hidden" costs.

• Our climate and seismicity make construction and maintenance of public infrastructure more expensive than in all but the most remote parts of the Lower 48. The cost of public services and utility generation and distribution are going to continue to rise. Prudhoe Bay's decline may be slowed by new technologies and a gas line but no one is suggesting a return to the level of oil revenues during the glory days. As warfare becomes more high-tech, the need for large far-flung bases like JBER is going to decline. National debt concerns will increase pressure to reduce the amount of federal funds flowing into Alaska.

• There is a crunch coming. We must reduce the operating costs of our communities. Limiting sprawl is an especially effective way to reduce the cost of living in Alaska. We cannot afford to continue to subsidize unnecessarily remote neighborhoods. Rather than debating growth's desirability, we should be seeking strategies we can comfortably continue to afford.

If you want to control your property tax rates, join the movement to shut down KABATA.

And we are not out of land. The Anchorage Bowl is three times the size of Manhattan. Manhattan's population density is 67,000 - Anchorage's, 1700. Much of the Anchorage Bowl remains underdeveloped. Additionally, more land, already developed, and close to the center of Anchorage, is likely to become available as twenty-first century warfare evolution reduces JBER's land requirements.

Lately, a possibly plausible argument for a crossing has arisen. A train bridge could reduce the rail distance between Anchorage and Fairbanks by 11 percent. If a gas line, or other major development, occurs on the North Slope, this reduction in transportation costs could mean gigantic savings for the railroad, the new development's builders and its eventual users. It also represents a real savings for Alaskans, the earth and humankind. If the body politic decides that major North Slope redevelopment is warranted, we should pursue that most efficiently, understanding that efficiency necessarily includes careful environmental stewardship.

Although a train bridge would not raise infrastructure difficulties on the Anchorage end nor would it automatically foster sprawl, I remain unconvinced that its costs could be offset by development savings. But it is worth studying.

The culture of KABATA has squandered our trust. Close KABATA now. Return the federal money. Let the railroad and North Slope developers, on their nickels, attempt to convince us about a train crossing's value.

Mike Mense is an Anchorage architect.


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