Tiff over tolls troubles bridge critics

When the state department of transportation took over the Knik Arm Crossing project from previous developers, the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, or KABATA, in July of last year, planners took a fresh look at traffic projections needed to ensure adequate tolls could be collected to pay project costs. But critics of the new plan say it’s the same old numbers game.

A conceptual concept rendering of the KABATA bridge. Image from the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority.
A conceptual concept rendering of the KABATA bridge. Image from the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority.

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A socioeconomic study released by the state department of transportation shows a scaled down approach to fiscal plans to pay for the proposed bridge linking Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough. DOT has applied for a federal loan to foot the bill for the bulk of construction costs of the bridge project, according to project director Judy Dougherty. She says the new look incorporates recent information.

“Since DOT and the state is bringing financing to this project, they are taking a much more conservative look at the population projection.”

Dougherty says that the new financing outlook would depend on a minimum of 18,000 vehicles a day paying a toll to cross the bridge. The traffic projections are based on expectations of population growth in the Borough.

Dougherty says, under the current plan, toll revenues from the bridge are to be tapped to pay for the state’s share of the construction costs of the project. Dougherty points out that the old plan relied on tolls to pay for all bridge construction costs.

“Under the new plan, which is a public finance plan, the tolls will only be responsible for paying for operations and maintenance and for the TIFIA [Transportation, Infrastructure, Finance and Innovation Act] loan, which is approximately one-third of the construction costs. ”

A TIFIA loan is federal transportation money. The bridge project has applied for and been denied TIFIA funds, half a dozen times.

But the traffic projections for potential users of the proposed Knik Arm Bridge are not realistic, according to an opponent of the project, independent financial analyst Jaime Kenworthy. He says consultants for the bridge project have inflated traffic estimates.

“DOT has now spent a million dollars on new consultants to come up with the same numbers criticized by the LBNA audit. Their population projections for Mat-Su in 2040 project 60 percent more growth than the state demographer, and that AMATS is using for their 2040 plan.”

Kenworthy, a longtime critic of the bridge, brought his analysis to a meeting of the KABATA board in Anchorage on Thursday.  DOT consultants’ information shows a doubling of population by 2040 in most Mat Su communities based on 2012 population figures.

“And KABATA/ DOT has put five times more people and twice as many jobs at Point MacKenzie in 2040 than the Borough’s own consultant projected for 2035.”

Dougherty says DOT’s population projections are centered on growth at Point MacKenzie. She says TIFIA experts will decide on the validity of the toll estimates.

“Our studies will have to be investment grade. We will have to have two rating opinions and they will evaluate our project and our projections.”

Kenworthy counters that a fiscally strapped state needs to proceed with caution.

DOT consultants Cardno, Agnew-Beck and CDM Smith have worked on different aspects of the most recent Knik Arm Crossing study.  All three consulting firms have worked on previous studies related to the plan.  The KABATA board did not have a quorum at the meeting, and took no action Thursday.