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State in a dither over road funding

Governor slated to issue spending plan on Dec. 15

Posted: Wednesday, November 30, 2005

State officials remain in a fog over where they will put millions in federal dollars for transportation over the next three years.

Gov. Frank Murkowski is evaluating what to do with the $450 million that was until recently earmarked for a pair of controversial bridge projects. He is expected to issue his spending proposal on Dec. 15.

Meanwhile, state officials say they need Alaskans to provide their comments on a three-year draft federal spending plan, called the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program. The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has published a draft spending plan for 2006-2008 federal highway dollars that remains out for public comment until Dec. 31.

The $450 million could stay with the bridges planned in Ketchikan and Anchorage.

Or, it could get reinserted into the state's federal highway spending program, state officials said this week.

The program runs on a three-year cycle and the state must publish its 2006-2008 spending plan by Jan. 1.

Though the document is out for public comment, it has a major flaw: It was designed before Congress plucked the $450 million for the two bridge earmarks.

Immediately after submitting a final spending plan to federal regulators, transportation officials will take up a major new amendment to the spending plan, said Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesman John Manly.

"We're anticipating it will be a significant amendment just because of how (Congress') decision has thrown things a little off track," Manly said.

The amendment also will be submitted to the public for comment, Manly said.

Congress withdrew the two controversial earmarks for Ketchikan's Gravina Island bridge and Anchorage's Knik Arm bridge after a national outcry over the projects, criticized as "bridges to nowhere."

The earmarks were also a reason - though not the only one - for the reduced availability of funds for long-awaited highway improvements throughout Alaska in 2006-2008.

Congress allowed Alaska to keep the $450 million.

Since then, debate has flared about what to do with the money. Some Interior legislators have panned the idea of full funding for the Gravina bridge, which would link the city of Ketchikan to Gravina Island and its airport.

"There will be interplay between the governor's wish list and the Alaska Legislature's wish list," Manly said.

Ketchikan business and political leaders are striving to keep the funds for the bridge, which they see as essential for Ketchikan's growth.

"(Murkowski) hasn't made final decisions about what he will be advancing," said Cheryl Frasca, his budget director.

"We continue to have discussions with the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities ... . I believe there is some flexibility," Frasca said Tuesday from Anchorage.

If the earmark money is reinserted into the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, she said, it could trickle out to other communities. "Then, what about the bridges?" she said.

Some projects, such as the long-awaited Sunny Point bypass for Egan Drive in Juneau, have been pushed out of the three-year funding cycle.

Other projects that were pushed out of the 2006-2008 funding cycle include repaving the roads to Petersburg's and Haines' ferry terminals, as well as other road work in Ketchikan, Craig and Sitka.

If the $450 million is redistributed, some community highway projects could move back up to 2007.

"That's one possibility," Frasca said.

Murkowski's deadline for submitting his capital budget is Dec. 15 and it will then go to the Legislature, which convenes Jan. 9.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.



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