Juneau – Legislators have signed off on another $1.4 million in federal money to pay planners of the controversial Knik Arm bridge and are talking about ponying up state dollars for the project next year.
The bridge would connect Anchorage to mostly undeveloped Mat-Su land near Point MacKenzie. Supporters estimate a cost of about $700 million, and critics nationally ridiculed it as a “bridge to nowhere” when Congress provided initial money to help.
Bills cleared the transportation committees in the state House and Senate this year to give $150 million in state money for the bridge and declare financial obligations made by the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority “obligations of the state.”
Those bills will remain alive when the Legislature returns to work in January and lawmakers are interested. “I'm a big supporter of the Knik Arm bridge,” said Chugiak Rep. Bill Stoltze, in charge of construction funding in the House.
Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman said it's not ready this year but he intends to put forward a transportation funding package next year and is talking to state officials about what needs to be built and when.
“I'm having discussions with DOT and the governor's office about what are we doing with the big projects. And this is one of them,” said Stedman, who is in charge of construction funding in the Senate.
Bridge opponents object to state funding, saying it was supposed to be financed through driver tolls. The requested $150 million would likely turn out to be a first installment from the Legislature, they say.
“It's to make up for the false promise by the KABATA folks that they would be able to finance this project privately,” said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara. “The truth is that no private company is going to build a bridge that's going to have almost no commuters, a bridge that takes you longer to get to Palmer and Wasilla.”
The House and Senate passed a state operating budget for the coming year that includes a $1.4 million allocation for the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority. The Legislature created KABATA in 2003 to work toward development of the bridge.
Karen Rehfeld, the governor's budget director, said it's an annual appropriation from the federal money set aside for the project. It pays for the annual salaries and benefits of KABATA's nine employees.
KABATA's executive director and chief financial officer each make about $144,000 in salary and $66,000 in benefits, according to budget documents.
The pitch has been to pay for bridge construction through tolls charged to motorists who cross the bridge, a toll estimated to be $10 round trip. The idea is that a private developer would build and operate the bridge in return for a share of the tolls. But KABATA announced this spring the tolls won't be enough to cover the costs in the first few years the bridge would be in operation.
The requested state money is to cover that shortfall.
KABATA chief financial officer Kevin Hemenway didn't return a message for this story.
Stoltze said it would be unreasonable to drop the project because it can't pay for itself. “If any other project had to go through the hurdles of funding itself we wouldn't build any projects,” he said.
Supporters say it will open up that portion of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough for housing and industry, creating opportunities for economic development.
Opponents argue there's no way enough drivers are going to be willing to pay enough tolls to support it as it won't save time for commuters between Anchorage and Wasilla and Palmer. The bridge also faces opposition in the Government Hill area of Anchorage over an access corridor.