Accelerated construction bill moves out of committee

Posted: Wednesday, March 01, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill proposing to borrow $350 million to accelerate development of 11 transportation projects around the state was approved by the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday.

Members voted 5-1 to move the House Bill 319 over the objections of Rep. Allen Kemplen, who said adding $350 million to the normal flow of state projects could leave the state short of qualified workers.

''I hesitate to put a lot of work on the street and start importing labor from the Lower 48 when we can take a more reasonable approach to scheduling,'' said Kemplen, D-Anchorage.

He also objected to accelerating construction when the state last year closed highway maintenance stations and stopped plowing some rural highways because of a shortage of maintenance money.

''We can't afford to keep up with what we have now,'' Kemplen said.

He was outvoted by the five other members who backed the plan by Gov. Tony Knowles to issue general obligation bonds to pay for projects ready to be built or bought but ranked below others on the state Department of Transportation's priority list.

Voters would have to approve the sale of bonds for the projects, which include 10 road jobs and the purchase of two fast ferries for Southeast Alaska, including one projected to improve access to Juneau from Haines and Skagway.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe Perkins said the road projects could be started in two or three years. Perkins said that will shave at least three years off their start dates if the projects paid for in the annual appropriations process.

Knowles proposes that bonds be paid off by Alaska's expected return from federal gas taxes. The federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century allocates up to $350 million annually for Alaska. Federal rules allow states to borrow against the promise of those funds.

Perkins said interest payments on the bonds will be offset by the chance to build the projects before inflation makes them more expensive.

The bill calls for spending $135 million for two Anchorage projects, including $65 million to widen about one mile of the Glenn Highway near Merrill Field in the state's largest city, a notorious traffic bottleneck that separates two sections of six-lane road with a four-lane road.

The bill would spend $60 million for an interchange at the Parks and Glenn highways south of Wasilla and spend $55 million for three projects in Fairbanks, including $10 million for downtown street improvements.

''Mainly it is sidewalks, nice lighting facilities, flower boxes and the sprucing up of downtown,'' Perkins said in response to questions from a Fairbanks North Star Borough assemblywoman.

The bill also proposes $30 million for road projects in Bethel, Dillingham, Kotzebue and Nome.

Besides his concerns about a labor shortage, Kemplen faulted the bill for lacking detail about the projects. He said Alaskans would not know enough about what they were voting on in November.

Other members of the committee said the extra projects could be handled without importing labor or contractors.

''From what I heard it would not superheat the economy,'' said Rep. Bill Hudson, R-Juneau.

The bill now moves to the House Finance Committee.

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