Legislators may divert money for delayed roads

Posted: Thursday, January 12, 2006

Some House Republicans said Wednesday that they might consider funneling additional state dollars this year to federal highway projects in Alaska that are now delayed in part because of large allocations for two large and controversial bridge projects.

Legislators might even consider diverting the proposed $45 million this year from Juneau's road-ferry link to Skagway, said House Finance co-chairman Kevin Meyer.

Legislators need to review whether the Juneau road is still a good idea since federal officials have deemed that pavement will no longer reach Skagway from Juneau, Meyer said.

Some Finance Committee members questioned state transportation officials Wednesday about the Knik Arm and Gravina Island bridge projects, which would cost nearly $1 billion to build.

Anchorage Republicans showed special interest in the long-term financing plan for Ketchikan's Gravina Island project, for which Gov. Frank Murkowski has proposed providing $91 million this year.

Ketchikan will still need to obtain an additional $219 million for the project, Meyer said. He wondered where that money would come from, if not the Legislature.

Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, told Ketchikan bridge proponents that they should at least consider a toll bridge, as is planned for the Knik Arm crossing.

Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein said a toll in Ketchikan wouldn't generate significant revenues.

Under attack for its so-called "bridges to nowhere" in Ketchikan and Knik Arm, the state now contends that the two bridges would not harm funding for local roads over the next few years.

Still, state officials concede that the bridges' current funding plan would divert an unspecified amount of money from federal highway projects such as the Seward Highway.

Bridge critics, including the Juneau-based Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, say the state has failed to provide a true accounting of the bridges' costs and benefits.

Legislators appeared to agree on Wednesday.

"I can't explain to my constituents what the hell is going on," said Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, during a Wednesday afternoon Finance Committee hearing on the bridges.

Hawker and several legislators Wednesday demanded a concise breakdown of how major changes in the funding for the two bridges would affect other major highway projects.

The changes are under way after Congress eliminated the original earmarks for the bridges. Murkowski then redistributed the money in his proposed budget, providing less to the bridges and more to community road projects.

The state is still updating its priority list of road projects over the next few weeks. "We will be able to show you shortly," said Mike Barton, commissioner of the state Transportation and Public Facilities Department.

Meyer said once his committee obtains accurate information about the money lost to highway projects, legislators can consider diverting money for those projects from the projected $1.2 billion state surplus, the $50 million proposed by Murkowski for a rail connection to Canada, the $45 million for the Juneau access project or even the general fund.

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