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Alaska megaproject millions redirected to upgrades for existing highways

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 13, 2015

State transportation officials plan to redirect more than $150 million in federal funds intended for a pair of controversial megaprojects and put the money toward less glamorous efforts such as road maintenance and bridge replacement.

But the Knik Arm bridge and Juneau Access project -- two of several megaprojects targeted by Gov. Bill Walker for possible elimination – are not dead, transportation officials said.

If they are killed, however, an additional $500 million or so over the next five years could also be dedicated to road maintenance, rehabilitation and other state projects receiving federal highway funds, said Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesperson with the state Department of Transportation.

The repurposing of the $154 million to about 20 other projects was announced late Friday in a proposed amendment to the agency's four-year Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, a planning document for federally funded projects. The amendment removes the two megaprojects from the 2015 plan that extends through September.

The reallocated funds will largely go to projects along the Glenn, Sterling and Richardson highways, including several bridge replacement efforts, such as $9 million for a Glenn Highway bridge replacement over the Chickaloon River. The Seward Highway is slated to receive about $5 million toward a reconstruction effort from Dowling Road to Dimond Boulevard that includes adding lanes to the highway.

"It shows this is real money," better spent on transportation needs than on new megaprojects that may never get built, said Lois Epstein, an engineer who has written a report arguing the projects would have little financial benefit to the state.

Woodrow said the change to the plan has nothing to do with Walker's order to put new megaproject spending on hold, pending a review. The order came with the state facing a $3.5 billion budget deficit because of falling oil prices.

The STIP amendment was announced the same day that administrators of several megaprojects responded to that order. Among other things, Walker had asked for an explanation of the consequences of delaying or axing projects.

Now-former Transportation Commissioner Pat Kemp defended the Knik Arm bridge, proposed to connect Anchorage to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, as well as the 50-mile Juneau Access road that would shorten the ferry ride to Skagway and Haines.

Walker fired Kemp on Monday, with Walker's press secretary saying the two had different priorities.

The reallocation of the money was previously anticipated, and the timing was a "coincidence," said Woodrow. With neither the Knik crossing nor the Juneau road planned for construction this year, transportation officials issued the amended plan Friday in part because of a schedule tied to complicated federal guidelines, Woodrow said.

"It's use it or lose it," Woodrow said of the federal funds, with money returned to the federal government if it can't be used on other projects.

The proposed amendment, currently undergoing a public comment period through Feb. 13, must be approved by the Federal Highway Administration.

The Federal Highway Administration in Alaska typically accepts such decisions, officials said. If projects are stopped, however, the state may have to repay already-spent federal money, a point Kemp made in his letter.

The state has spent about $100 million in federal money on the two projects, with the Knik Arm bridge using $73 million of that.

Woodrow said the two megaprojects could be reinstated in the next four-year Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, covering 2016 to 2019. That plan is due out in a few months.

In the meantime, the department and administration can review the Knik Arm and Juneau projects further to see if "there's merit to them or a different direction is needed," Woodrow said.

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