SAN FRANCISCO - Alaska's plans to build a new toll bridge using a public-private partnership appear to have hit the doldrums amid questions over the project's cost and whether or not it is needed.
Both the state and the federal government have requested a review of the Knik Arm Crossing's projected costs before moving forward, said Gordon Keith, assistant commissioner at the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
State lawmakers in 2003 established the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority and charged it with building a bridge and causeway linking central Anchorage with the Port Mackenzie area of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, across the two-mile wide ocean inlet called the Knik Arm, using tolls and a P3 concession.
The new project would link Alaska's largest city with lightly developed territory across the inlet. They are currently separated by an 80-mile drive.
The authority filed its final environmental impact statement on the project in December. The next milestone it is waiting for is a record of decision from the Federal Highway Administration.
"The FHA has told us they will not issue a record of decision until we do another independent third-party estimate on the cost of the project," Keith said.
"We're putting out an RFP and hiring a consultant to do that work," he said, adding that state officials also want an updated cost estimate. The authority has long given a $600 million estimate to the project.
The project has received conditional approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation allocating up to $600 million of tax-exempt private-activity bonds, as part of the $15 billion in surface-transportation PABs authorized by the federal 2005 transportation authorization legislation.
One of the conditions is that the authority obtains a record of decision.
After issuing a request for qualifications, the authority in 2007 placed two development and construction consortiums on its shortlist: one fronted by French firm Bouygues Travaux Publics SA, and the other by Australia's Macquarie Bank.
The next step would be to move forward with the procurement by issuing a detailed request for qualifications. But there is no point in doing that until the feds issue a formal record of decision on the project, said Kevin Hemenway, the Knik Arm authority's chief financial officer.
"Since the ROD has not been issued, it's difficult to start a formal procurement," he said. "Both parties have expressed continued interest. They're relatively patient at the moment."
As time moved on, the bridge project's position in local politics appears to have changed for the worse.
The bridge project was seeded with a federal earmark, and federal law gives a local Metropolitan Planning Organization the responsibility to plan and program federal highway and transit spending.
Three of the five seats on the Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions policy committee are held by elected officials from the municipality of Anchorage.
After local elections this year, the Assembly appointed two different members to the AMATS policy committee.
"The two new members have asked to reexamine a lot of things with the Knik Arm bridge," said the Keith, who chairs the policy committee, and also serves on the bridge authority's board.
The AMATS board has the power to take the Knik Arm Crossing out of the region's shorter-term Transportation Improvement Program or its longer-range transportation plan, Keith said.
"Either of those will stop the project," he said.
Keith said that the third-party cost estimate should be completed by October, adding that he believes that the emphasis on up-front costs is overblown, because of the nature of the planned concession deal.
"It's a 50- to 55-year relationship; such things as the costs of borrowing money are more important than the first costs," he said.