The Knik Arm Crossing: a zombie or viable project?

A state of Alaska rendering of the Knik Arm Crossing, looking east toward Anchorage.
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) — The Senate’s addition of $4.5 million to the state’s capital budget to breathe new life into the Knik Arm Crossing project has stunned some opponents, but supporters say it’s a natural outgrowth of the traffic catastrophe on the Glenn Highway in March when an overpass partially collapsed.

“Oh, I think I was more than a little surprised,” said Government Hill activist Stephanie Kesler, a former community council president. “I think my jaw just dropped open.”

While Kesler is calling the bridge a zombie project that should have died but hasn’t, supporters says the traffic mess in March should be a wake-up call that the bridge is needed.

“This is a project that’s been spoken about for decades,” said Sen. Shelley Hughes, a Republican from Palmer. Interest in the project by her constituents was reinvigorated when a truck crashed into the Eagle River overpass and caused a partial collapse, blocking the highway, she said.

“There’s also an awareness that on the federal level, the Trump administration wants to build and upgrade infrastructure,” Hughes said.

The Knik Arm Crossing money was added on the Senate floor Tuesday as an amendment to the capital budget. Speaking for the measure, Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, said it was “mostly a life and safety issue.”

The amendment was approved 15-4, with the Democratic Senate minority lined up in opposition except for Sen. Dennis Egan of Juneau. Egan has supported another new part of the capital budget, the $21 million it sets aside for the Juneau Access Project, the proposed highway from Juneau to a new ferry terminal across the water from Haines.

Kesler says her calculations show the bridge would cost $2.5 billion, while supporters say it’s more like $700 million to $900 million. The first phase would be a two-lane highway between Anchorage and Point MacKenzie. It would have a toll of between $5 and $10 a ride, and be built with borrowed federal money. The project was once run by the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority — KABATA — but it has since been adopted by the state transportation department. The KABATA office on 15th Avenue in Anchorage has closed.

A 2013 legislative audit said the state’s traffic projections and toll revenues for the bridge were unrealistic. Even if Alaska was able to build the bridge with borrowed money, the state government would eventually be on the hook because it project couldn’t pay for itself, opponents said.

Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, and a staunch supporter of the bridge, said the $4.5 million added to the budget by Wilson would be used to wake up the project and show the federal government that the state is willing to put money on the line.

More than a decade ago, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens proposed the bridge be named “Don Young’s Way” in honor of Alaska’s lone congressman, who then headed the House Transportation Committee. That was when the Knik Arm Crossing was attacked by Congressional spending hawks as one of two “Bridges to Nowhere” in Alaska that Young was supporting. The other was a bridge between Ketchikan and its island airport.

The Knik Arm Crossing became somewhat of a political millstone and a symbol of wasteful Congressional earmarks. When oil prices collapsed, Gov. Bill Walker, elected in 2014, reined in the state’s big megaprojects and said the money in them should be spent elsewhere.

The move to reawaken the bridge shocked opponents, Kesler said.

“I don’t think any of us saw it coming, although I won’t say that I’m surprised,” Kesler said. “Even though it’s dead, it comes back like a zombie, and it will continue, because some folks just can’t resist it.”

If legislators wanted to create a jobs, they could fund other transportation projects, she said. Kesler also rejected the idea that the Eagle River overpass accident proved the bridge was needed.

“I think that was specious reasoning,” she said. “The bridge is going to be $3 billion. And $3 billion can buy you a lot of mitigation projects along the Glenn Highway to insure that if you have another bridge accident, you could have alternative routes.”

Kesler said her opposition to the project originally stemmed from her residence on Government Hill, site of the Anchorage access to the proposed bridge. But now, she said, its cost is also a concern.

“When the project first started, we of course looked at it,” she said. “As a neighborhood we need to care about this. But over the past 10 years, 10-plus years, it became very apparent that it was such a financial catastrophe for the state.”

The capital budget is now in the House. Majority leaders there have not decided what to do with the money set aside for the Knik Arm Crossing, a spokesman said.

An earlier version of this story said anti-bridge activist Stephanie Kesler said the Knik Arm Crossing project would cost $3 billion. On Thursday, she revised her projections and said the real cost would actually be $2.5 billion.

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