Thursday, June 25, 2009

Knik Arm Bridge Granted Stay Of Execution By Anchorage Assembly, But Still Left On Death Row

The best way to define the status of the proposed Knik Arm Bridge after the June 24th, 2009 meeting of the Anchorage Assembly is that it was granted a stay of execution, but is still housed on death row. After a five-hour public hearing, the Assembly voted unanimously for a compromise proposal authored by Downtown Assemblyman Patrick Flynn to keep the Knik Arm bridge project alive while pushing it several years back in the city's long-range transportation plan. Flynn's compromise was intended to bridge the large gap between proponents and opponents of the proposed bridge; he also addressed this issue on his blog as recently as June 7th.

Patrick Flynn also appeared on Dan Fagan's radio program on June 24th and debated this issue with KABATA publicist Mary Ann Pease. The .MP3 file of the debate is available HERE. Flynn is establishing a noteworthy reputation for his class and his skills in disagreeing without being disagreeable; while his Assembly predecessor, Allan Tesche, often talked about "elevating the discourse", Flynn has actually done so since Day One of his tenure.

The issue was described in AR 2009-129(S). However, it was AM 388-2009, Knik Arm Crossing (a .DOC file; must have Microsoft Word-compatible word processor to read it) in which Patrick Flynn set forth twelve objectives for rolling the Knik Arm Bridge project from the short-term list to the long-term list. To summarize, the compromise solution has the advantage of keeping the bridge authority operating, and allows it to continue planning, designing and looking for ways to finance the project. The compromise also adds the idea of including a heavy rail connection on the vehicular bridge, along with pedestrian and bicycle facilities. But even though the construction date is pushed forward to 2018, Assemblyman Dan Coffey said the project's place in the long-range plan could be revisited and changed back as soon as 2011. Coffey also indicated that incoming Mayor Dan Sullivan can live with the compromise.

The Assembly's vote was strictly advisory; it merely conveys a "sense-of-the-Assembly" message to the Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions (AMATS) policy committee, who will make the real decision on the Bridge's fate. Their choices include keeping it, delaying it, or killing it altogether. However, it is more than just a paper decision, since three of the AMATS committee members are from the Assembly: Flynn, Sheila Selkregg, and lame-duck Mayor Matt Claman, who will revert to his Assembly seat on July 1st when Dan Sullivan in sworn in as mayor. But all three of the Assembly members are skeptical of the Bridge, and Flynn and Selkregg have previously opposed it. And public opinion polls indicate these three are disconnected from the community on this issue; a just-concluded KTUU "unscientific" poll shows that 70 percent of the 1,062 respondents support the Bridge. Thus the AMATS policy committee is currently dominated by those with a bias against the Bridge.

Update: On Thursday afternoon, the AMATS committee did vote 5-0 to accept the Assembly's recommendation and delay the Knik Arm Bridge until 2018.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that the cities of Wasilla and Houston filed suit on June 23rd seeking to stop AMATS from considering a proposal to delay the Bridge. The suit names the AMATS Policy Committee and its five individual members, and initially asks for a restraining order preventing the decision-making policy committee from acting on the recommendations for 10 days. AMATS will take up the issue on Thursday June 25th. It would sure be helpful if Governor Sarah Palin would consider speaking out more boldly on behalf of the bridge (but she'd probably draw an "ethics complaint" if she did).

Advantages of the bridge:

-- Facilitate access to Point Mackenzie, the Knik-Goose Bay area, and the Parks Highway northward to Denali and Fairbanks.
-- Shorten access time to the new state prison under construction in Point Mackenzie (the Anchorage Daily News, which is editorially "anti-bridge", has studiously avoided even mentioning the prison in their reportage).
-- Open up more land for development. This would slow down or even stop the endless increase in property values which has propelled Anchorage's median home price to $330,000, making home ownership essentially unavailable to younger workers as well as other workers whose skills and education significantly limit their earning power.
-- The resultant additional highway north would reduce wear and tear on the existing Glenn Highway, which has noticeable ruts nearly its entire length between Anchorage and Palmer
-- Delaying the project too long could increase costs due to inflation.


-- Preferred plan places a southern terminus into Downtown Anchorage. This would not only disrupt the Government Hill neighborhood, but might also put an unmanageable strain upon downtown traffic patterns during commute periods. Unfortunately, bridge opponents fail to consider the two alternate schemes; a Boniface terminus, and a Hiland Road terminus, both of which would merge the Point Mackenzie traffic into the Glenn Highway traffic well short of downtown, and spare the Government Hill neighborhood.
-- Effect of Cook Inlet/Knik Arm tidal action upon the bridge's stability. Specifically, could it handle being repeatedly dinged by ice chunks in the Knik Arm during winter and spring breakup?
-- Some residual concern over the effect upon the local Beluga whale population. Opponents claim the Beluga whale population is endangered, but although numbers were declining, they now seem to be stabilized.
-- Possible negative effect on Anchorage property values. Some fear that property values, even outside the targeted Government Hill area, could decline. But many of those actually want to keep the housing supply artificially constricted to promote continued rise in property values.
-- High initial costs. Many bridle at the proposed $680 million price tag as well as the millions already spent.

Verdict: The advantages of the Knik Arm Bridge clearly outweigh the disadvantages. It's time to remove this project from "Death Row". Construction should begin as soon as possible to mitigate future inflationary costs. The Downtown southern terminus should be re-visited, and one of the two alternate terminuses, either Boniface or Hiland Road, should be substituted.

Additional information links:

-- Knik Arm Bridge And Toll Authority (KABATA) website
-- Knik Arm Bridge page of the Anchorage Daily News for all their previous coverage.
-- Previous posts on this blog dating back to 2006

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