Alaska Editorial: Knik bridge still doesn't pass the need test

The following editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

There’s no Knik Arm Crossing, but the idea spans decades.

There are good reasons for both facts.

First, the need for what’s likely to be a $1 billion or more project has never been proven. Many have a desire to build it, many see an echo of 19th century manifest destiny, many see opportunity of one sort or another.

But no one has made a solid case that Alaska needs this bridge. Hence no bridge.

Yet those who support the bridge cannot seem to give up the idea. Some of that is understandable — for example, it’s been a gravy train of good jobs for the staff of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority (KABATA) and others who have worked on the project. Construction contractors and workers see years of lucrative work in the project.

But those don’t make the bridge good public policy, or worth the exclusion of other transportation projects.

That brings us to the second point. The idea survives on changing rationales.

We’ve heard arguments that the bridge will ease the commute from the Valley, which doesn’t make sense because the commute for most Valley residents would be longer with the bridge.

We’ve heard that we need to open up more affordable development across Knik Arm, but it’s not clear that a boom to the north would provide more affordable homes or business development.

We’ve heard that the private sector was chomping at the bit to build the bridge and collect the tolls, only to find that the private sector needed a guarantee of the public’s money to cover any losses — and an open-ended guarantee at that.

Most recently, we have the Parnell administration talking about making this a completely public project. After all, the argument goes, the state is in the infrastructure business.

So now the prospect for Alaskans is we’ll pay for it — and, after the merrymaking and ribbon cutting, we’ll get to pay tolls as well. And in all the projections about tolls, we’re not talking change in your cup holder, but folding money.

Lawmakers of both parties should cast a cold eye on this project. What’s the need? What’s the real cost to Alaska? What projects will go begging if we spend a fortune on this one?

There’s a rule of thumb that says you build a project like this when the cost of not doing it is more than the cost of doing it. And bridges work best when the need is clear on both sides. That’s never been established in this case.

That’s why the Knik Arm Crossing is still an idea, not a bridge.

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