ANCHORAGE — Alaska voters are being asked whether to spend money to build the first leg of a multi-billion dollar road to Nome, to chip in for moving a western Alaska village, help pay for a rail link to the port at Point MacKenzie and contribute another $50 million to the Anchorage port expansion.
Proposition A on the Nov. 6 general election ballot would let the state go into debt for another $453.5 million in construction projects, including these.
The 2012 Legislature approved $2.9 billion in outright spending on capital projects of all sorts — schools, roads, parks, university buildings — for communities across the state.
On top of that, the Legislature voted to put one big general obligation bond proposition that mostly consists of roads, ports and harbors on the November ballot to let voters decide on additional spending.
The proposition covers:
• $195.4 million in grants to local governments for ports, harbor and other projects.
• $254.5 million for state Department of Transportation road projects and one airport.
The balance of the $453.5 million pays for the cost of issuing the bonds.
The biggest grants are $50 million for the Port of Anchorage and $30 million for a rail extension to Port Mackenzie in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Those two projects come with major questions about their future direction.
A federal appeals court panel this fall halted work on the railroad extension after some conservation groups argued an environmental review of the project was inadequate. A split panel of three judges agreed it was questionable whether the U.S. Surface Transportation Board had complied with federal law. Oral arguments are scheduled in November.
Regarding the Port of Anchorage, a draft study of whether rebuilding of the port can proceed as designed is not due for presentation to the Anchorage Assembly until Nov. 9, three days after the bond vote.
Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan said even if the design is modified, the project will still need “well more than $50 million.”
Port construction essentially halted after the 2009 construction season. Inspections found that steel sheets that form the new dock face had bent and split apart.
The federal Maritime Administration has been leading the troubled port reconstruction, but Sullivan said the city is taking on more responsibility. With the city directing it, Sullivan said recently that he can assure voters the state money will be well spent.
In addition to money in the bond proposition, the port got $48.5 million in direct appropriations from the Legislature this year. And the rail extension got $23.5 million in direct appropriations.
Start of Nome road
The municipality of Nenana would get a grant of $6.5 million of the $17 million the city estimates it needs for a 28-mile-road that would reach northwest about one-third of the way to the village of Tanana — and potentially be the first step in a road from Interior Alaska to Nome on the west coast.
Gov. Sean Parnell has said the proposed road to Nome is a priority, and last year said he wanted to push a road through to Tanana to get it started.
The Nenana project would open up agricultural land, the Nenana Basin Gas exploration area, and some university and mental health trust property, say documents backing up the grant request.
Newtok Traditional Council would get $4.1 million to help with its effort to move to higher ground at a place called Mertarvik, nine miles away. The Ninglick River is eating away as much as 70 feet of bank per year, edging closer to homes at Newtok.
The village is getting an assist from the military, led by the U.S. Marines. The military is in the middle of a five-year mission to help build the new village as part of an Innovative Readiness Training program.
Around the state
The grants offer something for most parts of the state: Port improvements in Nome, Kotzebue, the Bristol Bay Borough and Emmonak; boat harbor work in Bethel, the Haines Borough, Hooper Bay and St. George; a dock in Sitka; pier replacement in Kodiak; expansion of Seward’s marine industrial center and Togiak’s waterfront transit facility, roadwork for Sand Point and the Mat-Su Borough. The Mat-Su road grant is $13.5 million to extend Bogard Road east between the Glenn Highway in Palmer and Trunk Road.
The D.O.T. money
Separately from the grants, the bond proposition would appropriate $254.5 million to the state Department of Transportation for 17 road projects and one airport.
The DOT can move money from one project to another if it needs to.
The ballot language just names the total amount to be spent and doesn’t itemize projects. But the projects are listed in the voter information pamphlet mailed to voters from the state, and are also available at the Division of Elections website.
Anchorage and Mat-su
Anchorage and Mat-Su road projects on the Department of Transportation list:
• $35 million — On the Glenn Highway from Hiland Road to Artillery Road, add a third lane each direction, improve interchanges, replace Eagle River bridges. Total project cost: $90 million.
• $15 million — Rebuild interchange at Glenn Highway and Muldoon Road. Total project cost: $15 million.
• $26 million — Seward Highway at 36th Avenue, rebuild the intersection and alleviate bottleneck. Total project cost: $55 million.
• $10 million — Repair bridges on Seward Highway Milepost 75 to 90. Total project cost: $20 million.
• $15 million — Rebuild O’Malley Road from New Seward Highway to Livingston Street, about 2,000 feet east of Lake Otis Parkway. Widen the road to four lanes with paths on both sides.
• $10 million — Rebuild Fairview Loop road in the Valley. The project received another $10 million in a direct appropriation.
• $15 million — Make traffic and safety improvements on Knik Goose Bay Road.
Elsewhere in the state
Other DOT projects in the proposition include $6.5 million for the Elliott Highway; $24 million for the Old Steese Highway; $14.4 million for Wendell Street Bridge replacement in Fairbanks; $5.5 million for the Glacier Highway in Juneau; $6 million for Mendenhall Loop improvements in Juneau; $20 million for rehabilitating Kenai Spur Road; $19 million for Shelter Cove Road in Ketchikan; $5 million for Plack Road in North Pole; $3.1 million to extend the Platinum Airport runway; $11 million to replace Ruby Creek Bridge on the Richardson Highway and $14 million for construction of Katlian Bay Road in Sitka.
Why go in to debt?
The $453.5 million in bond money would be paid back by the state over time; how much time and at what interest rates haven’t been determined yet, say state Department of Revenue officials.
State Senate majority leader Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said he’s heard some talk radio rumbles that it’s not a good idea to go into more debt.
“But I think our credit rating is still very good,” Meyer said. “I’d like to see it pass.”
UAA economics professor Steve Colt said interest rates for bonds are really low right now.
“This is probably the best bond climate for public sector bonding as long as I’ve been in Alaska,” Colt said.
Voters will have to decide whether the package of projects is a good investment, he said.
Bob Shavelson, advocacy director for Cook Inletkeeper, a nonprofit group aimed at protecting the Cook Inlet watershed, said the group is opposed to the Port of Anchorage grant funding; the type of construction using sheets of metal is not as good for salmon as if they used piles, he said.
The group also questions the need for a port at Mackenzie.
“Those two projects turn the entire bond package into a poison pill,” Shavelson said.
But Senate Finance co-chairman Bert Stedman, who was instrumental in putting the bond package together, said passing the bonds doesn’t mean “carte blanche access to the funds” for the projects.
“I support the package in its entirety,” he said. “But there’s still going to be review of these projects as they go forward. It’s still public money.”