Thanks to the forethought of our leaders and policy makers since statehood, we have a strong economy, a healthy savings account, and a good start on infrastructure to serve our communities. In short, they made Alaska a better place to live.
Interest in building America’s transportation infrastructure is waning, and that apathy can be felt here in Alaska. According to an April 2011 article in The Economist, public spending on transportation and water infrastructure has fallen since the 1960s and is now only 2.4 percent of gross domestic product, while Europe and China invest considerably more at 5 percent and 9 percent respectively. Regrettably there are those in the Lower 48 who would prefer not to see any federal investment in Alaska.
But complacency doesn’t suit us — we need to build infrastructure in order for our economy and our communities to thrive. Investment in our roads, bridges, airports and ports will allow Alaska to attract new businesses, retain existing ones and support a vibrant private sector that creates jobs.
The Knik Arm Bridge is one of those worthy investments. It’s a significant piece of infrastructure to be sure, and one that is badly needed for us to meet the needs of our growing population. Case in point, in 1985 the Anchorage population was 227,000 and the Mat-Su Borough (MSB) was 37,000. In 2010 the Anchorage population had grown 28 percent to 291,000 but the MSB had grown 143 percent to almost 90,000 people. What’s driving the growth in the MSB? Affordable land and housing is the short answer — according to 2011 statistics from Alaska Housing Financing Corporation, the average new single family home in the MSB was $173,000 less than a new single family home in Anchorage.
These families are literally trading the time and cost of commuting in order to buy a more affordable home. At the same time, studies show that the higher paying jobs are in Anchorage and will likely remain there for the next 25 years. With high-paying jobs in Anchorage and affordable land and housing in the MSB, the trend of living in one community and working in the other will continue.
Travel on the Glenn Highway between the MSB and Anchorage has also increased significantly since 1985 from 15,000 vehicles to 30,000 vehicles daily in 2010 at Eklutna. Further down the Glenn Highway, at Eagle River’s Highland Road, traffic has grown from 33,000 vehicles in 1985 to 53,000 in 2010. We expect that in 2035, without a bridge, the average annual daily traffic will reach 65,000 at Eklutna and 110,000 at Highland Road.
If we don’t build the bridge, how will we address the growing population and traffic? We will have to build six-lane improvements from Wasilla to Eagle River, eight-lane improvements from Eagle River to Anchorage, construction of the Parks Wasilla Bypass and network improvements to the Palmer/Wasilla corridor. The Department of Transportation & Public Facilities estimated in the 2008 Statewide Long Range Transportation Plan that those improvements would cost around $3 billion. Unlike the Knik Arm Crossing, these projects would not generate revenue from tolls and would have to be state supported as a result of diminishing federal funds. And while building the bridge does not eliminate the need to reinvest in the Glenn and Parks Highways, it certainly allows us to defer those needs and to plan for upgrades over a longer period of time.
The benefits of building the bridge are numerous — it will provide 1,500 construction jobs every year for four years of construction and will stimulate the economy to create an estimated 15,000 additional jobs after completion. It will reduce freight costs to Alaska’s Interior and North Slope by approximately $300 million in the first 10 years and provide fuel and time savings for Alaskans by reducing vehicle miles traveled. It provides access to the Port MacKenzie Industrial District within 5 miles of downtown Anchorage for commercial and industrial development, which is sorely needed by Anchorage businesses. It links Anchorage with affordable land for residential development, and provides a second route for residents to use during emergencies and as an evacuation route. It provides a hard link to the western Cook Inlet which the Kenai Peninsula Borough can access and further develop their lands, including coal, hydroelectric, oil and gas and geothermal resources.
The Knik Arm Crossing is an investment in our future. I hope that when our children’s children look back on what we did, they too will say that we invested in their future, and that we made Alaska a better place to live and work.
• Foster, chairman of KABATA, has more than 30 years of engineering and construction experience in Alaska.