Opponents of the Knik Arm Bridge project are claiming a victory. Federal transportation officials have turned down the state’s request for a loan for the seventh time.
A February letter from the US Department of Transportation explains the federal government is putting on hold its consideration of the state’s current bridge plan.
The letter also indicates that the state needs to reduce it’s estimates of traffic and revenue concerning the bridge.
Jeremy Woodrow, a state department of transportation spokesperson, says the denial of the loan does not kill the bridge project. He says DOT is in the negotiating process for a loan from federal transportation officials
“And what you expect with any negotiation there is a lot of back and forth between the two parties before we can reach an agreement. So the letter we received was them saying that they aren’t ready to process the loan and that they need more information from Alaska before we can keep moving along this process. It was expected, it did not come as a shock to the department, it was expected as a part of that negotiation process.”
The state is seeking a $375 million TIFIA [Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act] loan to finance construction of the bridge. But the letter to Alaska DOT indicates the state’s proposal poses too many risks. The state is prohibited from issuing bonds to pay for construction of the bridge without the federal loan, according to state legislation passed in 2014. Last year, Governor Walker approved continuing with the bridge project under a restructured financing plan.
Jaime Kenworthy, author of the blog Knik Bridge Facts, opposes the bridge. He says the state has spent upwards of two million dollars on consultants to revise estimates of toll revenues that would pay for the first phase of bridge construction. Kenworthy says the traffic estimates are exaggerated to show a traffic projection that ensures enough tolls to pay for the project
‘”Let me tell you how exaggerated and aggressive they are. The state demographer thinks there will be 162 thousand people living in the Mat Su in 2042. The KABATA number is sixty percent more growth than everybody else. Sixty percent.”
Kenworthy says that both houses of the legislature have passed their operating budgets for the next year, budgeting $1.6 million dollars for the bridge. Those budgets sit in conference committee. Kenworthy says there is $168 million dollars in federal funds now available for the bridge project, but the state does not have the matching funds necessary to use it.
“The whole structure of House Bill 23 which was the last KABATA bill was, you need to get the TIFIA loan to trigger the state financial commitment. There is no reason why legislators can’t recommit that money in the capital budget in the operating budget this year, and put more money on the street this summer.”
Kenworthy also says the letter from federal transportation officials indicates that the state has not made it to the negotiation stage regarding a TIFIA loan.
That’s not true, according to Judy Dougherty, DOT’s director for the Knik bridge project. Dougherty says the TIFIA loan is only dependent on projected tolls from the bridge, and that DOT will respond to federal highway officials with new information.
“We’re preparing our response for TIFIA that will show them the break-even case, that would be how low the tolls and revenues can be in order to still cover the TIFIA loan. And we are finding that it can be even lower than our extreme downside case as much as 30 percent lower than our extreme downside.”
Dougherty says that data has just been completed and will be sent to federal authorities at month’s end.