Earmarks Bump AK Highway Projects Off Priority List

Sat November 26, 2005 - West Edition
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JUNEAU, AK (AP) The “Bridge to Nowhere” and other Alaska transportation earmarks have knocked projects worth hundreds of millions of federal dollars off the state’s highway priority list.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities released its three-year Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan, which lists the highway projects expected to be undertaken from 2006 to 2008, their expected costs and their funding sources.

Among the largest projects in the new state plan are two bridges now notorious to the rest of the country: The $300-million Gravina Access project linking Ketchikan to Gravina Island and its airport, which has been dubbed “the Bridge to Nowhere,” and the $600-million Knik Arm crossing between Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Congressional earmarks are $223 million for the Gravina project and $229 million for the Knik Arm crossing. Congress must still appropriate that money for Alaska, and state transportation officials estimate approximately 80 to 85 percent of the earmarked money will actually make it to the state.

Alaska’s congressional delegation has taken heat over the bridges in editorial pages around the country and from other politicians, who question their big price tags when billions are needed for hurricane relief in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Gov. Frank Murkowski told reporters in Juneau there still remains a remote chance that Congress will rescind funding for the Gravina bridge, and said critics were belittling a justified construction project.

“The fact that it’s getting the level of attention is a very serious challenge to the funding,” Murkowski said.

Approximately $119 million a year for other state highway projects will be displaced because the federal earmarks are counted against the rest of the state’s highway funding, said Jeff Otteson, the state Department of Transportation’s director for the Division of Program Development.

Additionally, more federal money this time around is targeted to specific areas, such as recreational trails, bridge repair and public safety, meaning less can be funneled into other projects.

“Our flexible money as compared to the past is roughly about half of what it was,” Otteson said.

The watchdog group Alaska Transportation Priorities Project said among the projects knocked off the state list is $199 million for Seward Highway improvements and $12 million for Ketchikan’s Tongass Avenue. Improvements to the Richardson, Dalton, Alaska and other state highways were reduced by $245 million, and $530,000 for a pedestrian walkway in Chitna was delayed until 2009.

“More money for controversial bridges means that there is less money for long-needed local transportation improvements,” said Emily Ferry, coordinator the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project. “Every community will likely see projects cut or delayed.”

All told, the state highway plan contains $1.7 billion in projects, $1.4 billion of which would be federally funded. Another $165 million would come from state general funds, and $135 million from other funds, such as highway revenue bonds.

Overall, transportation spending authorized to the state will rise to approximately $426 million a year, compared to $325 million a year previously.

The list is fluid and apt to change, Otteson said. That’s because state transportation officials now see regular funding changes coming from the federal government and continuing rise of construction costs, he said.

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