Knik bridge study indicates minimal population impact

Other than changing the view to the north, the Knik Arm Crossing would not impact the look of Anchorage much at all, even in the long term, according to the latest study of the proposed bridge released Dec. 8.

Alaska’s population hub will likely be home to nearly 302,000 people by 2040 if the bridge is never built, according to the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority’s Comprehensive Traffic and Revenue Study. If built, there would be a few less people, about 296,300 residing in the City of Anchorage by 2040. The city had a population of 259,300 in 2012, the baseline year for all study data.

The rest of the Municipality of Anchorage would see about 3,200 less people if the Knik Arm bridge is built, but still nearly double its population from 35,400 in 2012 to 60,700.

Some local and state leaders have viewed the bridge as a relief valve for Anchorage, which has escalating housing prices and diminishing developable land.

Bill Reid of Cardno Entrix, which compiled socioeconomic data for the study, said the bridge would encourage some businesses to move as well, but not many.

“The isolation (of Alaska) bumps up the growth economically, but not substantially,” he said, when compared to the impact major infrastructure projects can have in the Lower 48.

The entire Municipality of Anchorage would lose about 1,500 jobs from the bridge, less than 1 percent of the 203,600 by 2040 projected without it.

The up to $900 million project would build a 1.7-mile bridge from Anchorage to Point MacKenzie; an 800-foot tunnel underneath the North Anchorage Government Hill neighborhood; and about 4.5 miles of total connections to existing roads on either side.

Population forecasts for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough are inverse of Anchorage, but similar in that they are impacted little by the bridge.

Without the second link between the jurisdictions, the Mat-Su Borough population is expected to more than double from about 90,000 in 2012 to nearly 197,000 residents by 2040. If the bridge is completed by the state’s current 2020 goal,there will be about 207,000 people in the borough, a difference of about 9 percent, according to the study.

The borough’s population has grown by about 6 percent annually since 1990; the Municipality of Anchorage has grown about 1 percent per year over the same period.

People and subsequent jobs from Anchorage and the broader Mat-Su Borough would meet at Point MacKenzie. The bridge would add more than 33,000 people and 8,000 jobs by 2040 to the rural area that had a population of less than 2,000 a couple years ago. As soon as 2025, it is estimated that Point MacKenzie’s population would grow nearly seven-fold with the crossing. Given the area’s close proximity to Anchorage, that would provide for a significantly shorter commute — 20 to 25 minutes as opposed to 45 minutes or more in other parts of the Mat-Su Borough — to the city’s Downtown.

The Mat-Su Borough is in the concept stages of planning two new town sites between the proposed bridge corridor and the Parks Highway to the north.

Traffic projections from the study indicate the toll bridge would get used enough, even in early years after construction, to pay for federal loans that would fund a third of the project, KABATA Executive Director Judy Dougherty said.

With the $5 one-way toll for passenger vehicles that KABATA and the state Department of Transportation have proposed, it’s estimated 7,600 vehicles would cross the two-lane bridge each day immediately in 2020. That would be about 15 percent of the 50,700 trips projected between the borough and Anchorage that year.

Without the toll the daily traffic jumps to 10,200.

By 2040 the bridge would handle 40,700 trips per day, 37 percent of the traffic between the areas, according to the study.

Dougherty told the Senate Finance Committee in April that about 10,000 vehicles per day would be needed to pay for the federal loans and operations and maintenance of the bridge. The latest study estimates that the 10,000 daily crossings threshold would be met sometime before 2025, when the bridge should handle 16,700 crossings per day.

A traffic forecast done in 2011 projected 16,200 vehicles per day would cross the bridge in 2020 but that assumed a 2016 completion, which would be the start of construction as the project stands now.

The state’s latest funding plan for the project is to take advantage of U.S. Transportation Department Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA, loans to cover $300 million of the project. Another third would be paid for with state bonds and the remaining roughly $300 million would come from the Federal Highway Administration with a roughly 10 percent state match. Overall, the state would pay about $30 million in general fund appropriations for construction.

KABATA has spent about $80 million on the project since its inception in 2003.

The Legislature approved $55 million for early construction of the project last session — largely federal money with the required state match.

If traffic does not materialize as quickly as forecasted Dougherty has said the 20-year TIFIA loan could be refinanced out to 35 years.

Since the Legislature transferred the funding and construction responsibilities from KABATA to state DOT last session there has been some delay in drafting the loan application documents, according to Dougherty.

KABATA retains its role as the toll collector and maintainer of the bridge if the project is completed.

A letter of interest to the Federal Highway Administration, the first major step in the loan application, has been revised to include DOT as the borrower, she said.

Additionally, DOT and Revenue needed to be brought up to speed on operations and maintenance projections, $7 million to $8 million per year, and benefit-cost analyses, Dougherty said.

It still needs to be worked out with the Highway Administration whether the operations and maintenance costs can come off the top of the toll revenue, or if the loan payments are serviced first by the money.

Working as a part of DOT’s bridge team, she said, the revised work was ready for submission just prior to the election, but now will need to be held back as members of Gov. Bill Walker’s administration are familiarized with the details of the plan.

The hope now is to submit the letter of interest documents sometime in January, Dougherty said.

Once it is sent off, the state’s initial eligibility for the loan should be determined within two months. She said the entire process, which includes a plan for toll collection — the state will do it electronically — and submission of contract documents, could take a year to 15 months.

Regardless of financing, construction cannot begin until outstanding environmental permits are secured. Dougherty said the state asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to close its pending application for a Clean Water Act wetlands permit because of the delays in the project. It can be reopened at the state’s request.

A permit application needs to be approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service as well. NMFS is responsible for assuring construction will not significantly impact the endangered Cook Inlet Beluga whales.

Dougherty said the current construction plan is to suspend pile driving from August through October, when the whales commonly use the upper portions of the Inlet to feed on salmon.

“It’s specific to noise, and noise at those decibels that is anticipated to affect the behavior of the Belugas,” she said.

It’s one of several conservation recommendations NMFS has made to the project team.

NMFS officials have said a decision can be expected by early 2015, according to Dougherty.

She noted that there has never been a case in which NMFS has issued a “no jeopardy” biological opinion after a proposal has gone through the National Environmental Policy Act process, as is the case with the Knik Arm bridge, and not been approved for construction.

If the bridge is the first, Dougherty said the state would likely challenge the decision.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/18/2016 - 11:00am