Proposed bridge faces questions

Posted: Tuesday, June 10, 2008

ANCHORAGE - After five years and $41.5 million spent on planning, one of southcentral Alaska's most ambitious development dreams, the Knik Arm Bridge, is at a crossroads.

Alaska's only U.S. representative, Don Young, five years ago was chairman of the House Transportation Committee, with strong influence over federal highway spending. Then-Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski pushed for progress on a bridge between Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

But Young is now in the U.S. House minority, Murkowski is out of office and budget watchdogs have mocked the project as a symbol of pork-barrel spending.

Former Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch resigned in April as chairman of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, the state agency charged with creating the bridge. The bridge authority's deputy director left too, saying the project had stalled.

"We need a complete review," said Gov. Sarah Palin last week of the latest plans for paying for the bridge. "We need to see if things have changed in the last couple of years from when the project seemed to have a lot of steam, a lot of energy behind it, to where we are now."

Knik Arm bridge authority officials remain optimistic. Criticized for secrecy, they have pledged openness.

"The project couldn't be more on track, in terms of trying to tie together the community and the administrative folks in the city, than ever before," said spokeswoman Mary Ann Pease.

The authority is relying on investors to pay most of the project's cost in exchange for toll revenue. Attracting investors will be harder if state and municipal agencies are disputing bridge details.

"The developers won't be interested unless they know that the state is a good partner," said Kevin Hemenway, chief financial officer for the authority.

Palin, a former Wasilla mayor, has said she supports the idea of a Knik arm bridge. But she also said the authority's plans must be reviewed.

"If what we hear is it could cost the state $1 billion - and that would result in huge financial risks allocated to the state - then it may not be worth it for the state to pursue the project," Palin said.

The Knik Arm bridge would be an 8,200-foot span connecting Anchorage to mostly undeveloped land near Point MacKenzie.

In 2005, Young inserted more than $200 million seed money for the Knik Arm bridge in a spending bill. Congress later pulled the earmark amid criticism of the Anchorage project and of a proposed Gravina Island bridge in Ketchikan.

The state still received the money but did not have to use it on the bridges.

Young and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, say they remain supporters.

For years, the bridge authority has loosely estimated the cost at about $600 million, which does not include adding Anchorage street connections, a top priority for city leaders.

Every year of delay adds about $25 million in costs, Hemenway said.

With financing costs and potential permitting delays or lawsuits, the bridge cost could approach $1 billion.

The authority says two international consortia have shown interest in building, financing and running the bridge. As of April, the bridge authority said it has spent about $41.5 million on planning. Most of it was federal money.

The authority's deputy director, Darryl Jordan, resigned April 4.

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