Engineers urge senators to think big in transportation projects

Sitting behind a stack of 47 spiral- bound volumes representing previous studies of the possibilities of building a Knik Arm bridge, state senators heard from experts on Feb. 23 about their ideas for easing future transportation needs statewide.

"Projects like the Knik Arm bridge can be designed and built by local firms," said Dennis Nottingham, president of Peratrovich Nottingham and Drage Inc.

Nottingham explained the concept of the bridge project, saying that it could be done today if there were a consensus of politics. He said that under current economic conditions the cost of the Knik Arm crossing would be about $300 million for a 600-foot span, using the same technology as the Yukon River Bridge designed by Nottingham when he was an engineer with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Senators heard from seven Alaska-based engineering firms and the Alaska Truckers Association, about future transportation infrastructure needs that point to connecting existing highways, increasing the size of ports and harbors statewide and more railway access to rural Alaska.

At the invitation of the Senate Transportation Committee, engineering experts explained that Alaska needs more and bigger projects, but to do them the state DOT’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Program rating system needs to be revamped first.

"Studies of projects before they are undertaken is costing us millions of dollars and not providing us with viable projects," interjected Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage.

Leading the charge against the STIP was Sen. Dave Donley, R-Anchorage, who stated to a room of 50 onlookers that DOT’s rating system is no longer adequate to produce more than a small number of projects yearly, and does not address the needs of the state equally.

Despite STIP concerns, engineering firms agreed that due to the state’s vast amount of coastline and lack of roads in and to rural Alaska, that bigger port and road projects need to be figured into the state’s long-range plans.

"We have periodic spikes of million dollar projects; what this state needs is more billion dollar projects," said Stewart Osgood, vice president of operations for Dowl Engineers.

New roads, bigger ports and rail access to Nome, Kotzebue and the North Slope were among the themes of the presentations, but conspicuously missing were assessments of statewide airports, a key link to statewide transportation.

Currently there are 150 airports statewide that are less than 3,300 feet in length, 35 runways less than 2000 feet, and 71 airports are unlit, according to the Alaska Aviation Coordination Council’s Felix Maguire, who was in attendance at the hearing.

Jim Rooney, president of R&M Consultants, mentioned airport improvements by stating that they are the lifeline of Alaska, and need four times as much funding from the Federal Aviation Administration as they currently receive, but none of the firms identified future airport needs.

Rooney spotlighted the need for larger harbors and port projects in Anchorage, Naknek, King Salmon, Whittier, Seward and Homer.

Ted Trueblood, president of Tryck Nyman & Hayes, suggested increased rail access to Denali Park and rail corridors to McGrath, Nome and Kotzebue, and a rail extension to Canada.

John Aho, vice president of CH2M Hill, testified that his firm is currently contacting communities on the North Slope and in northwest Alaska to identify transportation projects needed and to reduce expenditures by determining the best corridors for future transportation needs.

CH2M Hill’s study is currently in the draft stage; the company will give recommendations to the state in a year.

VECO, represented by vice president of community and government affairs Rick Smith and joint venture partner Nottingham, explained to questioning senators Cowdery and Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, that statewide firms have not only the brain trust to engineer projects but in the case of VECO, which has an extensive workforce both in-state and globally, can complete any future transportation projects regardless of their complexity.

Two firms, Lounsbury and Associates and Arctic Slope Consulting Group, or ASCG, were invited to the hearing but did not attend.

Cowdery will take the information from the hearings to Washington D.C. where he will meet with Rep. Don Young,R-Alaska, who chairs the House Transportation Committee.

03/03/2001 - 8:00pm