Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Draft Environmental Impact Statement On Alaska's Proposed Knik Arm Bridge Released

A recently released draft environmental impact statement for the proposed Knik Arm Bridge holds no surprises, but its proposal for a road through Government Hill has some residents' blood boiling. Original story in the Anchorage Daily News.

Since the Government Hill neighborhood of Anchorage is the most adversely affected, Stephanie Kesler, president of the Government Hill Community Council, wasted no time in firing back. She called the report "spectacularly flawed" and biased in favor of the cheapest option regardless of its effect on the neighborhood. "I think that the process up to this point has not been in good faith," she said. Kesler also stated that the proposed access route would leave a "trench" through the neighborhood and uproot many long-time residents who are seriously invested in the neighborhood. Kesler further stated that residents feel like they've been fighting an uphill battle to convince bridge promoters to consider other routes, including an access road through Elmendorf Air Force Base. The graphic posted above left, courtesy of the Anchorage Daily News, reveals the problems posed for the Government Hill neighborhood and the wisdom of the Hiland Road route, skirting just north of the military installations. The Hiland Road route would be longer, and cost a bit more, but would seamlessly integrate southbound traffic well north of the city center.

Officials with the Federal Highway Administration, which oversaw the report, could not immediately be reached for comment. But Darryl Jordan, deputy executive director of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, said authors of the report took pains to consider other alternatives for the old neighborhood, including a route residents there proposed along the east side of Government Hill near the border with Elmendorf Air Force Base.

The draft report is NOT last word on the project. Required by Federal law, this preliminary environmental impact statement merely identifies potential alternatives for the bridge and analyzes the possible impacts. This also includes the option of not building the bridge at all. A final environmental impact statement will be produced only after public hearings on the draft are held, which will afford ample opportunity for Government Hill residents to be heard.

Several major findings emerge from the draft report. The only two feasible alternatives for bridge access on the Anchorage side both involve plowing 800-foot tunnels beneath Government Hill. One would follow the alignment of Erickson Street while the other would fall beneath Degan Street. However, both alternatives would require relocating more than two dozen structures, affecting more than 40 properties, including homes and businesses.
The roads would also cut land from two area parks -- Harvard and Sunset. Anchorage municipal officials charged with transportation oversight are also concerned. Both options would divert more traffic into the city's A and C streets couplet leading to the downtown area.

Edrie Vinson, the highway administration environmental manager for the project, has previously said the route through Government Hill made more sense in part because of concerns that routing through Elmendorf would interfere with the base's military mission.

In addition to identifying potential routes through Government Hill, the report also dismisses as too costly the building of a 14,000-foot-long bridge rather than an 8,200-foot span. The longer span was discussed because of concerns the shorter bridge could worsen problems with sedimentation in Knik Arm. The report also rejects the idea of an expanded ferry system between Mat-Su and Anchorage in place of a bridge. The report stated the ferry would require too much travel time for residents and would not be able to generate enough business to recover its costs.

In addition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers remains concerned that building the bridge will increase sedimentation in front of the Port of Anchorage. The port has been fighting an increased buildup of silt in recent years. Silt poses a hazard for ships and is costly to dredge. Stephen Boardman, who oversees the Corps of Engineers civil project branch in Alaska, said a tabletop model of Cook Inlet created by the agency in 2003 showed the bridge could increase sedimentation near the port. He said the agency wants to do more research, including creating a warehouse-size model to test the impact of a bridge. "We have serious concerns about just Mother Nature," he said referring to ongoing problems with the silt buildup. "But you put the bridge in there, and what is that going to do?"

A bridge connecting Anchorage to the Mat-Su has been talked about for decades. But the project gained momentum when Gov. Frank Murkowski created the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority to pursue development and financing. It also got a boost when $229 million in federal funds were initially set aside for the project. Governor Murkowski followed up on this on June 13th of this year by signing legislation authorizing the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority to raise up to $500 million in revenue bonds as an additional funding source. After the project attracted nationwide scorn as a sign of wasteful government spending, the designation of that money for the bridge was removed by Congress. The money was later forwarded to the state, but without the specific earmark for the bridge.

While past plans have estimated building costs as high as $2 billion, the current plan calls for a more modest, two-lane bridge that could be expanded to four lanes by 2030. Jordan said financing for the bridge is still being worked out, but would include about $120 million in government funding, plus either financing from tolls or some combination of tolls and private funding.

Analysis: The advantages of this so-called "Bridge to Nowhere" remain manifold, not the least of which it would serve to mitigate the endlessly-escalating rises in the costs of single-family housing. As discussed in a previous post, two-income families are now beginning to find single-family housing in Anchorage unaffordable. Too many people chasing too few homes with not enough developable land upon which to build. The bridge would effectively open up Point Mackenzie land for new development, increasing the housing supply, stabilizing prices, and protecting existing Anchorage greenbelt against further encroachment. It's a win-win situation. So this "Bridge to Nowhere" will turn "nowhere" into "somewhere".

However, I see no reason why Government Hill must be sacrificed. The sheer volume of southbound traffic from Mat-Su each morning would create some serious traffic problems in downtown Anchorage. The Hiland Road route is clearly the way to go, until such time as we build a freeway through downtown and midtown linking the Glenn Highway with the Seward Highway. And the Hiland Road route is well north of the populated areas of the military installations - impact upon them would be minimal. Other military installations are bisected by public highways, including Fort Stewart in Georgia and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida without adversely impacting the military mission, so it can be done successfully here, too.

However, to sell this project more effectively to the American people, we cannot be too greedy. Our Congressional delegation must be willing to defer the Gravina Island Bridge (pictured above left, courtesy of Anchorage Daily News) down in Ketchikan in a spirit of compromise. At this point, the Gravina Island Bridge, linking Ketchikan to its airport on adjacent Gravina Island, with a full-time population of 50, is too much of a "bridge to nowhere" and too much of a pill for the tax-weary American people to swallow. This is where we can learn a lesson from the civil rights movement. If Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson had unveiled their entire agenda in one fell swoop, they would have been strung up forthwith. Instead, they revealed their agenda in piecemeal fashion - first, equality; next, preference; and now, reparations. We must use the same approach to eventually get BOTH bridges.

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