Knik Arm Bridge
|Knik Arm Bridge|
The proposed bridge would cross Knik Arm in north Anchorage
|Named for||Knik Arm|
|Total length||1.74 mile|
|Construction cost||$800 million|
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The project consists of a 1.74-mile-long bridge with 18 miles of connector roads, including on and off ramps, and a $50 million cut and cover tunnel under Government Hill. Current cost estimates are between $700 and $800 million.
Proponents say the crossing would provide access to much-needed residential, commercial and industrial land; create jobs; reduce the cost of transportation to Interior Alaska and the North Slope; lessen carbon emissions and provide an alternative transportation route out of Anchorage.
Opponents say the crossing would create unnecessary urban sprawl in the Anchorage area, would be more expensive and less used than projected, would divert limited transportation funding away from more critical projects, would disrupt the Government Hill neighborhood, and negatively impact the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales.
The idea of a bridge or causeway across Knik Arm was first envisioned in 1923 by Alaska Railroad engineers looking for a more efficient route to Alaska's interior. In 1955 a group of Anchorage businessmen studied it again. At that time, the cost estimate was $25 million ($194 million in 2008 dollars). The development of Seward's Success in the late-1960s called for the development of both an aerial tramway and monorail to span the Knik Arm. The Knik Arm Bridge And Toll Authority or KABATA, created by the Alaska Legislature in 2003 to develop a method of construction, financing, design, operation and maintenance of the bridge.
Since that time KABATA has completed the final EIS, obtained a "build" Record of Decision from FHWA and moved into preconstruction activities including submitting permit application and purchasing right-of-way needed for a cut and cover tunnel under Government Hill.
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A Knik Arm Crossing would provide better access to the southern part of the Mat-Su Borough between Knik Arm to the south and Big Lake and the Knik-Fairview area to the north. Mat-Su consultants[who?] estimate that 45,000 people could live in the area once the crossing is complete. Planning is now under way to accommodate this potential growth. The Southwest Borough Demographic Study has identified several new town sites, including one adjacent to the Port MacKenzie Industrial District, the Goose Bay Correctional Center, the Port MacKenzie Rail Extension and the Alaska Railroad Terminal Reserve on land owned by the borough.
Many Government Hill residents oppose the plan since many of the options presented would bisect the neighborhood and raze parts of it. Some opponents argue the bridge is a "pork-barrel project" because it was tied to the Gravina Island Bridge in its $450 million plus funding legislation. There is also concern it could threaten a population of beluga whales despite receiving a biological opinion of 'no jeopardy' from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Interconnecting with existing Anchorage freeways and other arteries presents an additional challenge.
Original funding for the Knik Arm Bridge was provided by an earmark written by Don Young. The same bill funded the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere."
The Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority (KABATA) came under scrutiny in September 2006 when reports surfaced that its lead staff had received 20% to 30% raises at an executive session in August, raising to a typical salary of $130,000 per year. KABATA produced a 14-minute video which cost $57,490 including airtime.
Former Governor Sarah Palin has been criticized for supporting the project, with one attorney for an environmentalist group suggesting she only supports it because it serves the area that she comes from. Palin's running mate in the 2008 presidential election John McCain opposes the bridge, calling the bill funding it and the Gravina Island Bridge a "monstrosity" that was "terrifying in its fiscal consequences".
In 2011, the city of Anchorage filed a lawsuit to force the federal government to drop its green light for the controversial Knik Arm bridge project, arguing that it would hurt the Port of Anchorage.
Some people, including activist and investor Jamie Kenworthy, believe that the toll revenue estimates provided to rationalize construction are unrealistic, as well.
Because of all of the concerns, the demise of the project has been expected for years.
Supporters of the bridge believe that the bridge would allow the growing population of the region to expand into the Point MacKenzie area. The approach road and connectors, along with the bridge total about 10 miles from Downtown Anchorage, about the same commuting distance as other available land in Anchorage. The residents of the Matanuska/Susitna Valley currently have only a single road to get to and from Anchorage and points south and Anchorage residents only have a single route to all points north. The Parks Highway which runs through Willow, Alaska, Houston, Alaska and Wasilla, joins the Glenn Highway, which continues along a strip of land between Chugach State Park and the military bases north of Anchorage. The Knik Arm Bridge and connecting roads would provide a secondary north/south roadway to Wasilla. There is however concern that the only paved connecting road on the Matanuska/Susitna Borough side of the bridge, which is the Knik Goose Bay Road, is presently overcapacity and listed as one of the four most dangerous roads in the state. The commuting distance for the vast majority of all existing residents of the Matanuska/Susitna Valley would not be lessened by taking the Knik Arm Bridge, a factor that Bridge critics say make KABATA's current revenue forecasts from the Bridge Tolls overstated.
Defending Knik Arm Bridge spending
In October 2005 Alaska Senator Ted Stevens opposed diverting Alaska's funding for the Gravina and Knik Arm Bridge funds to Louisiana to repair bridge damage in Hurricane Katrina. In his speech on the senate floor, Stevens threatened to quit Congress if the funds were removed from his state. Republicans in Congress dropped the specific allocation for the two bridges, allowing Alaska to apply the money to current transportation projects. Governor Frank Murkowski planned to fully fund both bridges: "I am proposing we spend the maximum allowed."
In 2009 Anchorage Metro Area Transportation Solutions (AMATS) decided to postpone the project and remove it from Anchorage's short term transportation plan until 2018. The cities of Houston and Wasilla responded with a lawsuit because AMATS did not have the authority to delay the project, which is a National Highway System route. In March 2010, the AMATS Policy Committee with new members, reversed their previous decision and re-instated the bridge into the short term transportation plan.
Received "Record of Decision" from Federal Highways Administration
In December 2010 the FHWA issued a "Record of Decision" accepting the Environmental Impact Statement, after over seven years and approximately $53 Million spent on studies, preliminary designs, public relations and cost estimating. KABATA has stated that they have asked their Toll and Revenue Consultant Wilbur Smith Associates  to re-visit their revenue and toll forecasts to reflect conditions that have changed since 2005, including revised population estimates for the Matanuska Susitna Borough by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER), that are as much as 50% lower than those forecasts used in the EIS to show that the Toll Bridge was "financially feasible".
Alaska State Senator Linda Menard and House Representative Mark Neuman introduced a set of companion bills in 2011 to establish a project reserve fund and clarify that the project is an infrastructure project backed by the state. These changes were necessitated by the national 2008 financial crisis. It would allow the state to repay the private investors when toll revenue is building up in early years after opening.
Senate Bill 079 sets aside $150 Million into a "reserve fund",paid by the State General Funds to cover the estimated deficits for the first three years. Senate Bill 080 says KABATA bonds will now be "obligations of the state."
KABATA CFO Kevin Hemenway told the Legislature's transportation committees that if the reserve fund dropped far enough "it would be subject to appropriation for replenishment."
The bills passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
In 2013 a legislative audit found that KABATA had overestimated potential revenue from tolls, leading to a decision to place the organization under the direct control of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, essentially stripping KABATA of any independent authority. The move is also expected to significantly slow the project, with AHFC explicitly rejecting any sort of timetable for completion.
The day after KABATA was merged into AHFC the funding bill was passed, obligating the state for $1.14 billion for the project.
On December 15, 2014 Governor Bill Walker announced the revised capital budget. It cut $45 million for the Knik Arm Project from the capital budget, that was created by the previous administration under Gov. Sean Parnell.
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