But the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, or KABATA — the group behind a bridge project that would link Anchorage to a peninsula nearby — is still wooing private investors and trying to pry loose a considerable amount of state financial backing. And more than $50 million it has spent on promotion has been federal money.
“The interest in the Knik Arm Crossing project is amazing,” Alaska state Sen. Linda Menard said on her Facebook page this summer after attending a Citigroup-sponsored conference on public-private projects. “I’ve just finished meetings in New York City with the largest investment companies on Earth. All of them are vying to be chosen to partner with Alaska to build the bridge. The future is here!”
With the U.S. unemployment rate stuck above 9 percent, building infrastructure is again on people’s minds. President Obama, as part of his latest jobs plan, has proposed building new infrastructure projects and funding a government infrastructure bank, although he vowed: “No more earmarks. No more boondoggles. No more bridges to nowhere.”
But where “nowhere” is depends on where you stand.
Standing recently on the Anchorage bluff where the bridge would begin, financial analyst Jamie Kenworthy said nowhere is right here. He said there would not be enough traffic to justify the price of the bridge, which he said could exceed $4 billion, including construction and financing costs. A $5-a-trip toll, he said, would be enough to give people incentives to use existing highways, even if doing so took slightly longer.
KABATA and its supporters say there is a need for a bridge that would start near the port of Anchorage and the Elmendorf Air Force base, cross the narrow body of water known as Knik Arm and connect to the fast-growing borough of Matanuska-Susitna, also known as Mat-Su.
The “capital cost for initial construction,” Menard said, would be $715 million; other related costs could come afterward. Although earmarks for the bridge were eliminated, some of the redirected federal money has still made its way to the bridge authority for research and promotion.
The bridge promoters are seeking support from the state. KABATA wants Alaska, flush with oil and gas revenue, to make what Menard calls “periodic, contractual availability payments” that would enable private contractors to meet bond payments. Those payments would exceed toll revenue in the early years until population and bridge use rose. But if car traffic were to fall short of expectations, the state would be stuck with the tab.
“Anyone who got beyond seventh-grade math would know that the private sector wouldn’t do that,” said Kenworthy, an independent analyst and critic of the bridge. “Only the taxpayers would do that.”