Building priorities may be up for grabs

Legislators could move funds for Gravina Island, Knik Arm bridges to other projects

Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2005

Alaska lawmakers and state officials expect funding for other transportation needs to compete with funding for two major bridges this legislative session if the bridges are not earmarked in a federal bill.

Participants in a congressional conference committee are considering removing the earmarks for the Gravina Island bridge project in Ketchikan and the Knik Arm crossing near Anchorage, but leaving the same amount of highway money in the transportation bill.

Without the earmarks, the Alaska Legislature may have an incentive to spend the money on other projects, said John Manly, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

"We're going to have to look at all the different priorities," said Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, who chairs the House Transportation Committee.

Gatto said if he had to pick one, he would choose to fund the Knik Arm bridge because it could be partially funded through bonds and it would serve more Alaskans than the Gravina Island bridge.

Congress agreed in late July to include $233 million for the Ketchikan project and $229 million for the Knik Arm bridge.

But based on years past, the state expects Congress to fund 85 percent of those amounts in the multiyear federal highway bill, Manly said. And the state needs to match the funds at 10 percent.

Federal money that is not designated for specific projects is divided up between several categories such as the national and state highway systems, community transportation projects and even a program for sidewalks and trails, Manly said.

Money for a bridge could not come from all programs and lawmakers would need funds from other sources, such as the general fund, Manly said.

"I don't know how much flexibility we will have for the bridges," said House Finance Committee chairman Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage.

Meyer said that the state's general funds could be low if the price of oil dips past $45 per barrel. He prefers to take care of small projects first if there is not enough money available for both bridges.

Unlike funding the highway from Juneau to the Katzehin River one piece at a time, bridges need most of the money up front, Manly said.

"It's not a project you can phase very well," Manly said. "They're going to have to make a commitment to building the whole bridge."

The department released a draft report of projects it expects to build from 2006 to 2008 with the bridges included. Manly added that projects listed in the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program can compete against each other.

Because the federal government previously slated more money for earmarks, less money was available for flexible budgeting. Juneau will have to wait longer for the Egan Drive overpasses that were scheduled to start construction next year. Also on hold are work on Riverside Drive next to Juneau's new high school, Davis Avenue in Lemon Creek and the Cordova-Douglas Highway intersection.

"I think there will be a debate" over which project is a greater priority, said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

If the bridges are not earmarked, she expects lawmakers to get funding back for projects that were bumped off DOT/PF's list because of the bridges. But Kerttula said she could not predict whether the bridges will still be built.

Besides funding for the bridges this session, Gov. Frank Murkowski said he wants to spend $1 billion now toward a 20 percent ownership of a $20 billion natural gas pipeline with a surplus of revenue on oil taxes. He also wants to use general funds for an increase per-student education funding by $90 million and $75 million for a highway connecting Juneau to planned ferry terminal near Skagway.

"We continue to believe these are worthwhile projects," said Mike Chambers, the governor's spokesman. But if the projects are not earmarked, the governor will work with the legislature and Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to evaluate the state's priorities, Chambers said.

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