Legislators plan to delve into road, bridge spending

Reps. Elkins, Gatto schedule hearing two days into session

Posted: Sunday, December 18, 2005

Two House Republicans don't plan to waste any time before diving into debate over the state's two controversial bridge projects.

House Transportation Committee co-chairmen Jim Elkins and Carl Gatto have scheduled a legislative hearing on the Knik Arm and Gravina Island bridges on the second day of the 2006 legislative session, Jan. 10.

Their idea is to get more public testimony and explanation about the Anchorage and Ketchikan bridge projects - as well as the state's priority list for transportation spending - early in the session, legislative staffers said Friday.

Legislators anticipate much haggling over the millions needed for Gov. Murkowski's so-called mega-projects, which also include Juneau's $250 million road north toward Skagway terminating at the Katzehin River.

"I'm not going to hold my breath for a lot of consensus on the road issues," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

It's not so much a partisan as a geographic issue - with Elkins, of Ketchikan, battling to protect his district's Gravina Island Bridge, and some Interior legislators saying the Legislature and state transportation officials need to go back to the drawing board.

Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, said he was distressed when the state "started ripping projects out of my (district) for bridges that haven't gone through a vetting process."

"I don't see the Gravina or Knik bridge as having priority over other projects in the state. ... They should be ranked and scored like all the others," added Wilken, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Elkins and Gatto could not be reached for comment last Friday.

The state's transportation priorities continue to evolve this winter, due to Congressional action and state policy decisions.

Last week, Gov. Murkowski announced his 2006 capital spending budget, which would provide $91 million for the Gravina Island project, $93.6 million for the Knik Arm bridge and $45 million for the Juneau access road.

That decision likely will have a cascade effect on other spending priorities, though the outcome for local projects is not clear yet.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities must publish a "final" transportation spending priority list on Jan. 1 to meet a federal deadline. However, the department will immediately begin revising it again.

"It's kind of a fluid document, with changes almost every day," said John Manly, a spokesman for the transportation department.

"The whole area of transportation (in Alaska) isn't just confusing, it's Byzantine," Kerttula remarked.

Fortunately for them, the Legislature's finance committees will not take up the state's major capital project bills until late spring.

"It's very difficult to pinpoint where the changes (to the road spending) will be made and when. There has to be a lot of public input," said Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau.

Weyhrauch said the House Finance Committee, which he and Kerttula sit on, will likely start tackling the capital spending on roads in May.

"It's appropriate that there's a wait. ... The public hasn't had a chance to do anything yet and the Legislature shouldn't make (these) decisions in a vacuum," Weyhrauch added.

The Transportation Committee hearing on Jan. 10 has been scheduled for 1:30 p.m. in Room 17 of the Capitol.

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

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