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Knik Arm bridge compromise OK'd by Assembly

The Anchorage Assembly voted late Wednesday night for a compromise proposal intended to keep the Knik Arm bridge project alive while pushing it several years back in the city's long-range transportation plan.

The unanimous vote followed a five-hour public hearing with passionate testimony from both sides of the issue: people who believe the bridge should be built as soon as possible and others who believe it is a waste of money that will hurt downtown Anchorage and other neighborhoods.

As proposed, the bridge between downtown Anchorage and mostly raw land on Point MacKenzie is estimated to cost about $680 million.

The Assembly's vote was only advisory. The real decision on whether to kill, keep or delay the controversial bridge is to be made today by a joint state-city transportation planning committee.

But three of the AMATS policy committee's five members are city representatives who are expected to support the compromise solution recommended last week by another committee of engineers and traffic planners.

Waiting in the wings is a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the mayors of Houston and Wasilla, who are asking a judge to block all attempts to change the bridge's current status in the transportation plan.

The AMATS policy committee is made up of two state officials, Assembly members Sheila Selkregg and Patrick Flynn, and acting mayor Matt Claman. Several people who testified at a five-hour public hearing urged the Assembly to postpone action at least until after Mayor-elect Dan Sullivan, a bridge supporter, is sworn into office July 1 and takes a seat on the decision making policy committee.

Executives with the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority -- the agency created by the Legislature in 2003 to advocate for and build the bridge -- asked the Assembly not to kill the project and argued that a second proposal to keep it alive but push it further down in the city's long-range transportation plan hasn't had enough public review, a flaw they said could cause big problems with the Federal Highway Administration.

This week's action is the result of a move begun last year to start the process of deleting the bridge from the plan altogether. Flynn described the compromise he helped engineer as a way to find "another way forward after hearing from the public."

Selkregg said she still has big problems with the project and would rather see it deleted from the plan. Selkregg said the latest $680 million cost estimate carries "extraordinarily big risks" that the amount "could be considerably greater over time." Such large amounts of federal transportation dollars might hamper the city's ability to proceed with more important projects like Glenn Highway improvements and the highway to highway connection planned for downtown, she said.

The compromise solution, unanimously recommended by a technical committee of engineers and traffic planners, 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.

Assemblyman Dan Coffey said the project's place in the long-range plan could be revisited and changed back as soon as 2011.

The choice is kill the project or keep it alive along enough for solutions to be found for it, he said. "If you take it out, you're done. If you move it to longer term" you have a chance to continue working toward building it.

Coffey also said he's talked to Sullivan about the compromise and that the incoming mayor thinks the compromise is "a good way in which to proceed given all the surrounding facts."

Michael Foster, the board chairman of the bridge authority, warned that the compromise may be different enough from the original plan to delete the project altogether and that it may legally need more public comment time. But before the Assembly's vote, he said in response to questions that the agency expects to be plowing full steam ahead.

Flynn represents downtown neighborhoods likely to be most affected by the bridge project, including historic Government Hill. Flynn has been a bridge critic, but described the compromise, which he helped forge, as a way to improve it. "It can be a good project," he said.


Contact reporter Don Hunter at dhunter@adn.com or 257-4349.

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