Thursday, February 15, 2007

Anchorage Planning And Zoning Commission Temporarily Nixes The Knik Arm Bridge

On Monday, February 12th, 2007, the Anchorage Planning and Zoning Commission recommended against including the proposed Knik Arm Bridge in the city's Long Range Transportation Plan, which sets the framework and unlocks federal funding for area transportation projects. Full story published on February 14th in the Anchorage Daily News. Supplemental report aired on KTUU Channel 2 on February 14th.

Monday's vote by the Planning and Zoning Commission -- an advisory panel appointed by the mayor that makes policy recommendations to the Anchorage Assembly -- isn't binding. And it is just one in a series of procedural steps toward getting the Knik Arm bridge project built or rejected. However, it is the latest in a series of setbacks suffered by advocates of the project.

A span across Knik Arm linking Anchorage with the largely undeveloped area around Point MacKenzie has been the dream of many Alaskans for decades. The proposed project gained momentum in 2005 after Congress set aside more than $200 million for it -- a fraction of the total cost -- in a five-year transportation spending bill.
The "earmark" fell out of the bill, however, after the proposed Knik Arm Bridge and a proposed Gravina Island Bridge linking Ketchikan with its international airport on Gravina Island gained nationwide notoriety as "bridges to nowhere" and were held up as examples of wasteful government spending. Much of the money still came to Alaska, but without the earmark it had to be divvied among a much broader range of transportation projects.

The Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority (KABATA), a state agency charged with figuring out how to pay for and build a bridge, is now looking for private investors to fund a large portion of the proposed project, which they estimate will cost about $600 million. But even so, the project as planned still would need a significant chunk of federal funding, said Mary Ann Pease, a consultant for KABATA. Getting that money could be difficult if the project is not included in Anchorage's transportation plan. Other KABATA officials declined to comment on the commission's decision. They're awaiting the release of the final environmental impact statement.

The transportation plan does not have final say about any projects or allocate any funds. However, projects that aren't included in the plan or are not consistent with its goals do not qualify for federal funding, said Lance Wilber, Anchorage's transportation director. He also stated that even if the project were to be entirely privately funded, it still would have to be incorporated into the transportation plan before developers could get the required city permits to build it.

Six of the Planning and Zoning Commission's nine members voted against the Knik bridge. Another member was excused from voting because of a conflict of interest. The remaining two were absent and did not vote. "The bottom line is, we felt there was nothing we could do to modify the proposed document to make it acceptable to add to the existing Long Range Transportation Plan," said Toni Jones, who chairs the commission.

However, Pease said she thought the Commission, rather than nixing the idea outright, should have listed concerns members had and proposed a series of conditions on the project.

The Planning and Zoning Commission's action is only the first step toward either including or keeping the proposed bridge project out of the transportation plan. The question now will be placed before the Anchorage Municipal Assembly, which is expected to put it on the agenda for their next public meeting on Tuesday, February 27th. If the Assembly approves the addition of the bridge project to the Long Range Transportation Plan, the proposal would then go to a group of state and local officials who comprise the Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions Policy Committee (AMATS), for a final decision.

And the 11-member Assembly doesn't always heed the Planning and Zoning Commission's advice. Just last fall, for instance, the Assembly approved a plan to build a Wal-Mart store in Muldoon after the Commission rejected the proposal. This means the project, while a bit winded and wounded, still has plenty of life left.

Analysis: The project has taken a few hits during the past eight months. In June, Congress removed earmarks, which meant the state still got the money, but had to divert it to other transportation projects. After then-Governor Frank Murkowski signed the state revenue bill to help fund the project, the Christian Science Monitor unleashed a fresh barrage of criticism in July.

However, another difficulty is that planners prefer a route through Government Hill because it's the shortest route to the downtown Anchorage area. Unfortunately, a Government Hill route would take housing out of circulation in an already scarce and expensive market, and disrupt the character of the Government Hill neighborhood.

The concerns of Government Hill residents are valid. Continuous traffic noise of a major traffic artery near their homes would flatten rising property values at the very least and make selling a home more difficult (but in Anchorage's hot housing market, not impossible). Two alternative routes displayed on the route map posted above would solve this problem. One alternate route would direct southbound bridge traffic north of Anchorage and the two military installations to a junction near the Hiland Road Eagle River exit. This would completely spare the Government Hill neighborhood, although it would not service the Port of Anchorage very well. Another less costly alternate route would divert bridge traffic north of Elmendorf AFB, but then south between Elmendorf and Fort Richardson to link up with the Boniface Parkway.

The concern about "sprawl" is misplaced. The Knik Arm Bridge would actually serve to prevent further sprawl within the Anchorage Bowl itself. According to municipal land use planners, 90% of the developable land within Anchorage has already been developed. The new Title 21 actually promotes vertical rather than horizontal development in the city from Tudor Road northwards. Further development within the Anchorage Bowl might encroach on our greenbelt, particularly Far North Bicentennial Park. Merely taking a small slice out of Bicentennial Park for the new Simonian Little League Ballfields provoked a firestorm of controversy. Two Assembly Members, Doug Van Etten and Dick Tremaine, were opposed to this development; both lost their jobs at the ballot box.

Concern about future traffic congestion on the existing Glenn Highway is very real. According to traffic studies posted on the KABATA website, the Glenn Highway supports over 50,000 vehicles per day just between Anchorage and Eagle River alone, and an additional 22,000 vehicles between Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley. With no bridge, it's estimated the Glenn Highway will reach saturation in 13 years. The Knik Arm Bridge and the corresponding west side highway will divert a projected 30,000 vehicles, including most commercial and truck traffic, from the Glenn Highway and keep the Glenn Highway under capacity until 2050.

The bridge is still a winner, particularly if planners embrace either the Hiland Road route or the Boniface Route. Those of us who favor the bridge need to make sure the responsible elected and appointed officials know where we stand early and often.

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