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KABATA announces Government Hill tunnel survey, catches national flak

Jerzy Shedlock
Despite a scathing legislative audit and an attempt at changing project management, the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority takes another step toward construction of its proposed bridge by announcing a new survey for a possible tunnel on the Anchorage side. Aaron Jansen illustration

A critical legislative audit and an attempt at transferring project management has failed to slow down the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority from taking another step toward connecting Alaska’s largest city to the burgeoning Matanuska-Susitna Borough with a proposed bridge. The authority authorized geotechnical work to start in the Government Hill neighborhood, often called Anchorage’s oldest neighborhood, for a potential, future underground tunnel. The announcement quickly was met with local and national criticism.

Studies will aid KABATA’s construction of an 800-foot-long cut-and-cover tunnel, part of the Erickson Street route for the Anchorage side of the bridge. The six-lane tunnel would flow all traffic below the neighborhood; its width was chosen to minimize impacts to Government Hill if an upgrade is needed -- if, that is, the bridge is ever built. The concept has remained in the potential stage for decades.

The survey work -- to be handled by national geotechnical and environmental firm Shannon and Wilson Inc., which has offices in Anchorage -- will include studying the subsurface conditions to 50 feet below the neighborhood’s ground surface, as well as examining soil and groundwater, the identification of any contaminated soils and an evaluation of seismic conditions.

The geotechnical work in Government Hill should begin in the next two weeks; it will cost approximately $50,000, said KABATA spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy.

The money for the work comes from federal funding, which the state earmarked to the authority back in 2005, McCarthy said. The funds totaled about $125 million. And $75 million of that sum already has been spent on previous work related to the megaproject.

Cut-and-cover construction is not as technical a process as drilling a hole through the side of a mountain. Instead, the tunnel is initially built as a trench. Then, the generally shallow "cut" is covered with a ceiling and soil, with room left for things like utilities. KABATA noted in a Wednesday press release that the cover will allow the neighborhood to remain cohesive, and could provide space on top for additional amenities, such as greenspace, trails, parking and playgrounds.

But the overall negative impacts to the neighborhood are not being openly discussed, said Stephanie Kesler, Government Hill Community Council president. “Tunnel” fails to describe the project, she said.

“It’s a ditch with a lid on it,” Kesler said.

She added she was disappointed that the authority had no contact with the community council about the geotechnical work before the Wednesday press release. The courteous approach would have been to announce the work to the neighborhood, she said. “Very often, we find things out after the fact.”

Too far, but not far enough

The authority has been on the defensive since April, when the Alaska Legislature ended its session without making major decisions on the future of the project. House Bill 23, which would have folded KABATA into the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. (AHFC), did not pass the state Senate, despite a hard push from the House.

The Legislature was considering granting the authority to issue up to $600 million in bonds for the bridge -- a project that, along with another "Bridge to Nowhere" in Southeast Alaska, was vilified by watchdogs and the national media as an example of government waste in the mid-2000s. It continues to receive national attention, as well.

Progress swiftly halted after opponents were emboldened by a legislative audit, which found KABATA's toll and traffic projections -- key figures in determining whether the billion-dollar bridge would pencil -- were "unreasonably optimistic."

Over the months that followed the legislative session, the authority offered little new news, but earlier this month, it announced the hiring of an independent consultant to review its questionable socioeconomic data. KABATA said Australia-based consulting firm Cardno Inc. will conduct the study by Sept. 30, and the price of the contract is between $100,000 to $150,000.

Rep. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, who proposed folding KABATA into the state housing corporation, told the Anchorage Daily News the review does not go far enough. The review also should include the authority’s traffic estimates, not just population and economic data, she said.

Any boasting about progress indicated by its upcoming tunnel study plans was -- partially -- muted Wednesday, as Washington, D.C.-based watchdogs Taxpayers for Common Sense awarded KABATA its “Golden Fleece,” an award given to highlight what the group believes to be instances of government profligacy. The watchdog said the authority “has failed Alaska’s citizens and wasted millions of federal taxpayer dollars, with little to show for it.”

In response, McCarthy wrote that it is common for Outside groups to disparage the state’s infrastructure projects. She also said the group's summary of the project contained multiple errors, like the claim that the bridge’s official name is “Don Young’s Way.”

‘Full steam ahead’

Despite continued flak from Alaskans and the government watchdog group, the authority feels confident in its decision to move forward with the Government Hill-based study. It is appropriate for KABATA to continue its work despite the unfinished socioeconomic data review, McCarthy said. It also gives the authority extra time to plan ahead.

“These things can run concurrently,” she said. “It would take decades longer if everything needed to be done separately.”

Rep. Costello said she believes the work KABATA has done is commendable, but compared the situation to a soccer game. All the fans are screaming "pass the ball," she said.

The authority may feel like it's under pressure to show some progress, Costello said. Their only option is to move forward and complete as much work as they can. Given the circumstances, however, come the next legislative session, the project should be handed off to the best team, she said.

Kesler argued KABATA is sending a strong message to Alaskans and the Legislature by “moving forward no matter what the audit says.

“They’re proceeding with no caution,” Kesler said. “Full steam ahead.”

Government Hill’s community council has been adamantly opposed to the project since U.S. Rep. Don Young and the late Sen. Ted Stevens gave new life to the bridge back in the early 2000s in Washington, D.C. And the authority’s recent actions have the council as concerned as ever, Kesler said.

The neighborhood would be torn up for three years while the tunnel is being built, she said. The authority has been adamant about the effectiveness of a cut-and-cover tunnel to mitigate negative impacts, but the council is not convinced and is examining ways to deal with the construction, regardless of what is decided.

According to the authority, the work is possible in the Erickson Street area because it owns the land over the proposed tunnel.

Three consortia have been short listed to partner with the state on the bridge project. These teams are allowed to compete for the contract through a competitive proposal process, which KABATA expects to begin next spring after passage of legislation establishing a project reserve fund.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com