Transport official explains shortage of funds

Proposed bridges aren't the problem, says Jeff Ottesen

Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A state transportation official told legislators Tuesday that they shouldn't blame Alaska's two controversial bridge projects for the state's trouble securing funding for other long-awaited transportation projects.

"I'm here to tell you it's not about the bridges," Jeff Ottesen, the director of program development for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public facilities, told House Transportation Committee members on Tuesday.

Federal funds are running out, construction costs are rising and Congress has authorized project-specific funding that will divert nearly $270 million from other Alaskan transportation projects, Ottesen said.

Overall, Alaska faces a $1.3 billion reduction in its spending power for federally funded road projects over the next five years, Ottesen said.

Critics, such as Bob French, a resident of Anchorage, had a ready comeback.

The state shouldn't go about approving large chunks of money for expensive bridges to Gravina Island and Knik Arm "if we can't fix the problems we have now," French said.

The audience at the 1:30 p.m. hearing was unusually crowded with legislators as well as Alaska residents wearing stickers reading "Fix it First!" A second hearing will occur in the Senate Finance Committee today, also at 1:30 p.m.

The chairman of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, George Wuerch, was one of the lonely few who spoke out in favor of the Legislature retaining its support for the bridges.

Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, and Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, also noted a few reasons to support the current funding plan on Tuesday.

Huggins told reporters before the hearing that Alaskans should think about their future ability to obtain funds for the bridges from Alaska's congressional delegation if they reject the money now.

But residents of Skagway, Craig, Ketchikan and Anchorage, as well as local officials from Palmer and the Fairbanks North Star Borough, testified at the Transportation Committee hearing against the Murkowski administration's plan to put nearly $185 million toward the two bridges over the next five years.

Several Juneau residents, including Kevin Hood, said the Legislature also should consider axing the governor's proposal to put money toward the Juneau access road project over the next few years.

There is a "false assumption that (the Juneau road-ferry link) will increase our quality of life," Hood said.

The Knik Arm bridge could cost $600 million total, using a combination of state and federal dollars as well as toll fees. The Gravina Island bridges could cost about $315 million. The Juneau access project could cost $250 million, according to the state.

People who testified Tuesday asked legislators to either eliminate the bridge or road dollars or spread the dollars over a longer time period.

Ottesen stressed to legislators that the bridges are just a fraction of Alaska's overall funding dilemma for transportation. He said the governor's recent capital budget proposal would actually accelerate road projects across Alaska, because it reallocates about 52 percent of former bridge money to the other projects.

Congress removed its original controversial earmarks for the Gravina Island and Knik Arm bridges after a national outcry in 2005.

Legislators may be poised to tinker some more with the funding for the bridges.

Several Transportation Committee members, including Rep. Mary Kapsner, D-Bethel, queried Ottesen about how the bridge money could be used elsewhere in Alaska.

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