Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Knik Arm Bridge in dire straits

This story has been developing since as early as November, shortly after the election, but now I think would be a good time to provide a brief recap on what has been happening with regards to the Knik Arm Bridge. Basically, with the state facing a huge deficit crisis due in part to the declining price of oil, the state, and the newly elected Walker administration that was elected to lead it, are now in full blown austerity mode as trimming down the budget becomes imperative. With that, it was not so surprising to see that shortly after being sworn in at the beginning of December, Governor Bill Walker has gutted the financing for the Knik Arm Bridge and the proposed road to Juneau, among other mega projects. Not so surprising considering that the bridge had long had a target on its back going back a decade due to the millions in federal dollars that it depends on. In late December the governor announced that he was bringing a halt to the Knik Arm Crossing and other projects which meant that KABATA (the state financed group overseeing the project) cannot enter into new contracts or carry out further expenditure activities indefinitely. Shortly afterwards, the DOT commissioner sent out a memo defending the Knik Arm Crossing and Juneau road project citing the consequences of not spending the federal money given for the projects. In response, Governor Walker promptly fires the commissioner with spokeswoman Grace Jang citing that Walker wants the priorities of his commissioners to align with his. Catching up to yesterday, January 19th, Walker has announced that the eminent domain process that KABATA has been using to seize and demolish properties to make way for the bridge landing will come to an end. The eminent domain actions by KABATA were particularly controversial due to the fact that they were seizing properties despite the bridge being far from being a sure thing (and we're talking before Walker's election). Some Government Hill residents accused KABATA of seizing property as a means to gain momentum on its side and make the project look more inevitable and hopeless to fight against. Last year Tesoro announced it was closing the neighborhood's only gas station and convenience store due to expectation that it was going to have to close. The little Subway restaurant across the street was also slated for eminent domain but has remained open. In his announcement, Governor Walker said he can relate to the business owner of the Subway shop and the service and employment provided to the neighborhood by it.

Since the beginning of this blog seven years ago, it has always been the position of Anchorage Joop to oppose the Knik Arm Crossing. Yes, this is a construction oriented blog that admittedly gets excited when large projects are in the works. But this is an excitement for projects within Anchorage. The Knik Arm Crossing is a project that leads out of Anchorage. Leading out with the bridge would be new development as the project would encourage a land rush on undeveloped land and continue unplanned suburban sprawl. In the process, Anchorage's tax base faces the threat of shrinking as the metro region takes on an identity more like that of a city in the Lower 48 in which the wealth is concentrated in the suburbs, leaving the city in dire financial straits. Only two groups have an interest in this bridge: Mat-Su officials, and private developers. Mat-Su officials have long favored the project as it would of course deliver economic growth to the Mat-Su Borough. In fact the Borough has been so eager for this project that they earlier attempted a now failed ferry operation that was suppose to float cars between Anchorage and Point McKenzie and serve as a prelude to the bridge's construction. Now the Borough is stuck with an unusable ferry, the federal government demanding its money back, and struggling to find a buyer (their latest interested buyer is a car rental company from Turkey). Meanwhile developers are salivating at the opportunities that come with opening land on the other side for it means they can relive the glory days of the 1970s when cheap undeveloped land was to be found in the Anchorage Bowl for which another strip mall could be placed. For many developers, what matters is their bottom line, not the consequences that come with their preference for unrestricted deregulated development that is free of any long range city planning. The consequences range from the increase of traffic, to more incidents involving wild animals, an expanding city budget to cover roads and sewers, worsening health effects promoted by a lifestyle that discourages walking, and an aesthetically unpleasing cityscape. Now that Anchorage finds itself hemmed-in in each direction due to its geographic boundaries, the city is finding for the first time that it must rethink the way it grows. This is an exciting time to be in Anchorage for the city is finding itself in a transition. Increasingly vanishing is the practice of building on virgin ground as developers now find themselves increasingly having to redevelop previously built upon land. In the process, the cityscape is starting to mature. Trailer parks and pipeline era commercial properties are being replaced with more thoughtful higher density developments. With the city promoting redevelopment and higher density construction through its updated codes and long range plans, the transition is only expected to continue. A severe housing shortage makes the need for higher density developments more acute.

If the Knik Arm bridge is built, it will be a puncture that will deflate all the momentum Anchorage has going for it to transition into a higher density more walkable city. This is why I am very pleased with the decisions of  the Walker administration. I think it's safe to say Walker is also the man of the hour in the Government Hill community, which has fought a very emotional battle against KABATA for a decade now. Government Hill residents have been on the front lines of this battle, and for their decades long activism, Anchorage Joop salutes them.

btw check out Knik Bridge Facts, which I have had as a link for the last few years. Hasn't been updated since November, but there is loads of information over there.