Knik Arm Bridge

Knik Arm Bridge

Coordinates: 61°17′N 149°54′W / 61.28°N 149.9°W / 61.28; -149.9

The proposed bridge would cross Knik Arm north of Anchorage

The Knik Arm Bridge is a controversial proposed highway crossing of the Knik Arm portion of Cook Inlet, north of Anchorage, Alaska. The project has also been referred to as "Don Young's Way", after Alaskan Congressman Don Young who strongly supported the project when he was Chair of the House Transportation Committee.[1][2] Like the canceled Gravina Island Bridge to which its funding has been linked, it has also been referred to as another Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere".[3]

The bridge would expand the commuter belt for Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, by cutting an hour or more from journeys from the southern part of the Matanuska/Susitna Valley (Mat-Su). The southern part of the Mat-Su currently has very few inhabitants; a justification critics cite for calling the project a "Bridge to Nowhere." Proponents say the bridge would stimulate new housing construction in Mat-Su. It would also provide an alternate route from Anchorage to Wasilla.[4] Cost estimates for the bridge vary wildly; more conservative estimates put the cost as high as $1.5 billion. Opponents suggest that a proposed Knik Arm ferry is a more cost-effective solution. The ice-breaking ferry, partially funded by the U.S. Navy, was completed and christened the M/V Susitna in June of 2010. A terminal on the Mat-Su side has also been completed, but as of September 2011, the ferry is berthed in storage and the project is on hold pending resolution of disputes about where to build the dock on the Anchorage side.[5]

Contents

Idea

The idea of a bridge or causeway across Knik Arm was first envisioned sometime between 1955 and 1957 by a group of Anchorage businessmen. At that time, the cost estimate was $25 million ($194 million in 2008 dollars). The development of Seward's Success in the late-1960s called for the development of both an aerial tramway and monorail in spanning the Knik Arm.[6] Over the decades, the idea has been studied repeatedly, including the concept of a Turnagain Arm bridge on the opposite side of Anchorage. The current round of studies were conducted under the jurisdiction of the Knik Arm Bridge And Toll Authority or KABATA, created by the Alaska Legislature in 2003 to develop a method of construction financing and of operation and maintenance of the bridge once constructed.[citation needed]

Criticism and controversy

View of area from space. The bridge would cross from the city to Point MacKenzie, Alaska the green area to the NW of the gray city of Anchorage

Some opponents argue the bridge is a "pork-barrel project" because it was tied to the Gravina Island Bridge in its $450 million plus funding legislation.[7] There is also concern it "could worsen some commuting and threaten a population of beluga whales."[4] Military officials argue that several of the proposed routes encroach upon either Elmendorf Air Force Base or Fort Richardson land, and insist that this would pose a security risk.[8] Interconnecting with existing Anchorage freeways and other arteries presents an additional challenge, because various neighborhoods, commercial areas, and industrial areas lie between the U.S. Air Force and Army land and the existing transportation infrastructure.

The Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority (KABATA) came under scrutiny in September 2006 when reports surfaced that its lead staff had received 20% to 30% raises at a secret board meeting in August, raising to a typical salary of $130,000 per year.[citation needed] Other more recent criticism is that the 14 minute video produced by KABATA for $57,390 in addition to providing a very rosy picture of the "future",[9] may be improper use of state funds for promotion, or public relations.

Former Governor Sarah Palin has been criticized for supporting the project, with one attorney for an environmentalist group suggesting she only supports it because it serves the area that she comes from.[10] Palin's running mate in the 2008 presidential election John McCain opposes the bridge, calling the bill funding it and the Gravina Bridge a "monstrosity" that was "terrifying in its fiscal consequences".[10]

Support

Supporters of the bridge, which is popular with some developers, argue the bridge would be two miles long, and would allow the population of Anchorage to expand into the Point MacKenzie area. The approach road and connectors, along with the bridge total about 10 miles from Downtown Anchorage, about the same commuting distance as other available land in Anchorage. The residents of the Matanuska/Susitna Valley currently have only a single road to get to and from Anchorage and points south. The Parks Highway which runs through Willow, Houston and Wasilla, joins the Glenn Highway, which continues along a strip of land between Chugach State Park and the military bases north of Anchorage. No other land routes are available between the Valley and Anchorage. If the winding dirt road called the "Burma Road" is expanded and paved, [2] the proposed bridge would allow access in a more direct northward route from Anchorage to Houston and Willow. The Knik Arm Bridge and connecting roads would provide a secondary north/south roadway to Wasilla. There is however concern that the only paved connecting road on the Matanuska/Susitna Borough side of the bridge, which is the Knik Goose Bay Road, is presently overcapacity and listed as one of the 4 most dangerous roads in the state. [3] The commuting distance for the vast majority of all existing residents of the Matanuska/Susitna Valley would not be lessened by taking the Knik Arm Bridge, a factor that Bridge critics say make KABATA's current revenue forecasts from the Bridge Tolls overstated. [4]

Defending Knik Arm Bridge spending

In October 2005 Alaska Senator Ted Stevens opposed diverting Alaska's funding for the Gravina and Knik Arm Bridge funds to Louisiana to repair bridge damage in Hurricane Katrina. In his speech on the senate floor, Stevens threatened to quit Congress if the funds were removed from his state.[11] Republicans in Congress dropped the specific allocation for the two bridges, allowing Alaska to apply the money to current transportation projects. Governor Frank Murkowski planned to fully fund both bridges: "I am proposing we spend the maximum allowed."[citation needed]

As of mid-2006, Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-IL) proposed an amendment disallowing federal funds from being allocated to the bridge project. The amendment passed the House in short order, but was held up in the Senate. According to the Alaska DOT, Alaska is one of only two states in the nation to not have a state-funded transportation improvement capital program. Gov. Murkowski signed into law a capital budget which contained start-up amounts for both the Knik Arm Bridge and the Gravina Island Bridge[citation needed] (the latter was canceled after a Congressional earmark was stripped).[12]

Delay and lawsuit

In 2009, an Anchorage transportation policy committee decided to postpone the project and remove it from Anchorage's short term transportation plan until 2018. The cities of Houston and Wasilla responded with a lawsuit claiming the committee did not have the authority to delay the project without consulting them.[13] The lawsuit, which involved one branch of the Alaska State Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (KABATA) suing another State DOT/PF/Municipal entity (Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions)AMATS, so 2 DOT/PF lawyers from the same office eventually came to a settlement, where neither side admitted fault, but the public process that removed it from the short term plan started over again. In March 2010, the AMATS Policy Committee with new members, reversed their previous decision and re-instated the bridge into the short term transportation plan. [5]

Received "Record of Decision" from Federal Highways Administration

In December 2010 the FHWA issued a "Record of Decision" accepting the Environmental Impact Statement, after over 7 years and approximately $53 Million spent on studies, preliminary designs, public relations and cost estimating. [6] KABATA has stated that they have asked their Toll and Revenue Consultant Wilbur Smith Associates [7] to re-visit their revenue and toll forecasts to reflect conditions that have changed since 2005, including revised population estimates for the Matanuska Susitna Borough by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) [8] that are as much as 50% lower than those forecasts used in the EIS to show that the Toll Bridge was "financially feasible". While Wilbur Smith Associates generally has a good track record in their transportation forecasts, the Toll Revenue forecast that they produced for Alaska's Whittier Tunnel Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was overly optimistic, and approximately $2 Million in shortfalls between annual toll revenues and operation and maintenance is made up by the State every year.

New Legislative Action in 2011

In February 2011, Alaska State Senator Linda Menard, who also is a non-voting member of KABATA's Board of Directors, introduce 2 bills that substantially change the way that the Knik Arm Bridge is proposed to be financed. After years of promising that the bridge will not require any further state or federal funds other than those already set aside, Senate Bill 079 [9] sets aside $150 Million into a "reserve fund",paid for out of the State General Funds to cover the estimated deficits for the first 3 years. [10] Senator Menard's Senate Bill 080 says that, contrary to KABATA's original statute, KABATA bonds will now be "obligations of the state." [11]

As the Senate bills and companion house bills work their way through the legislative process, [12] it is not clear whether or not KABATA will have their new toll revenue forecast from Wilbur Smith Associates before the legislature needs to make their decisions on SB 079 and SB 080. Those forecasts will be essential to see what the proposed toll cost will be, the estimated revenues, and how long the estimated deficits between toll revenues, operations, maintenance, and debt service on the construction bonds will extend, and when the $150 Million will be repaid to the state. KABATA states that the $150 Million reserve fund will eventually be repaid, but their CFO Kevin Hemenway tell the Legislature's transportation committees, though, that if the reserve fund dropped far enough "it would be subject to appropriation for replenishment." [13]

References

External links


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