DOT to study Southcentral regional planning committee

Dowl Engineers has been selected by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to study the idea of forming a planning body that would help secure funding and prioritize transportation projects in Southcentral Alaska and along the Railbelt.

The Anchorage-based engineering company was chosen over two consulting firms from Alaska and one from Portland, Ore., said Diana Rigg, DOT&PF project manager in Anchorage.

Dowl Engineers will be paid up to $250,000 for the study, which should be completed by the end of the year, Rigg said.

For the past several months, lawmakers, state officials, chambers of commerce and transportation officials have discussed the concept of a regional planning committee or a port authority to advance major transportation projects in Southcentral Alaska.

Road, rail, marine and airport projects are often planned independently and don’t take into account what effect they may have on other projects, said Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, chairman of the Senate transportation committee. The projects also compete for funding.

A concerted planning effort would likely increase the chances for funding large regional projects, like the Knik Arm crossing or expansion of the Port of Anchorage, according to Cowdery and others pushing the idea of a regional planning approach.

Cowdery has called two meetings since November to look at the transportation needs of Upper Cook Inlet and the Railbelt and to discuss the concept of a regional planning group.

Bill Sheffield, Alaska’s former governor and director of the Port of Anchorage, strongly supports the idea of a regional planning approach.

"We don’t seem to do a lot of planning -- we do on individual projects -- but not collectively," Sheffield said at a Senate transportation committee meeting Jan. 3. "It’s a lot easier for Congress to appropriate money if they have a road map."

Cowdery says up to 35 percent of all project funding goes into reports and studies, many of which overlap. Using a regional planning approach, he said, an environmental impact study for the Knik Arm bridge could be expanded to include the proposed expansion at the Port of Anchorage.

Tom Middendorf, senior planner with Dowl Engineers, said one component of his company’s recently acquired contract with the state will be to review some 30 transportation studies in existence in the region for transportation and infrastructure projects.

That work would be done with the help of a yet-to-be-formed ad hoc committee consisting of agencies and transportation groups in and around the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna area.

The company also will hire a Portland, Ore.-based subcontractor, Kittelson & Associates, to look at regional planning groups in the Lower 48, Middendorf said.

The entire scope of work for the regional planning study has yet to be determined. Also not determined is who will make up the planning group or whether it will have the authority to bond or tax, or if it will be simply advisory.

Cowdery said whatever the planning group turns out to be, it will have some clout.

"When they put their stamp of approval on something, it will hold some weight,’’ Cowdery said.

Still unclear is what defines the "region."

Whittier officials have asked to be included in the planning group. Some have said Fairbanks should be included in the regional planning approach with Southcentral because of its close ties with Anchorage by way of rail and air.

Rigg, with the state DOT&PF, said the original intent of the planning group was to link Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna area since they have close economic ties.

"The impetus for this was Anchorage and Mat-Su, but we invite anybody to participate and we’ll make sure everyone is in the loop that wants to be,’’ Rigg said.

01/13/2002 - 8:00pm