Gov. Tony Knowles wants to expedite $425 million of federally funded Alaska transportation projects by using a new type of bond financing. It's a creative idea for speeding along work on some useful projects, but a number of issues need to be resolved before the package is ready for adoption.
On the plus side, the slate of projects has a good statewide balance. It includes $58 million for projects in rural areas, which sometimes have been an afterthought when dividing up this particular pot of federal funding. This list appropriately focuses on nuts-and-bolts projects, rather than speculative big-budget ideas like the Knik Arm crossing, or new railroads through the Alaska wilderness.
The types of projects to be funded, though, bear further discussion. Roads will get roughly $355 million and ferries for Southeast Alaska will get $70 million. Alaska can also use federal aid to fund mass transit and trails, but this list includes only a few crumbs worth of trails and sidewalks.
That is a serious flaw that, at least in Anchorage, creates a skewed package. The new city comprehensive plan calls for a balance among modes of transportation, but the only nonroad items in the bond package are ''minor sidewalk improvements'' associated with road paving projects. Trail projects like the southern coastal trail, Ship Creek, the Chester-Campbell connection and a slew of sidewalk safety projects along busy streets deserve higher priority than they have now.
In constructing the package, the governor appeared to jump the gun on at least one big Anchorage project. To cure the horrendous bottleneck on the Glenn Highway from Merrill Field to Bragaw, the package includes $58 million. The supporting documentation suggests the $58 million would likely fund ''6-laning with interchanges at Airport Heights and Bragaw,'' while noting that planners are still reviewing other options. The new lanes and interchanges may well be the best solution for one of the city's worst traffic problems. But the review is nowhere near finished, so it's probably too early to put this project on the expedited funding list.
Items on the list come from local recommendations, according to the Knowles administration. In Anchorage, the process that produces those recommendations is arcane and not at all easy for citizens to participate in. It can be hard for citizens to figure out who decides on the projects and how to hold them accountable. For example, the list has one item that surprised citizen activists here, the $15 million for a partial interchange on the Seward Highway at International Airport Road. While the new connection would provide easier access to the airport, an increasingly important cog in the city's economy, it's not clear how that project got pulled from bureaucratic obscurity to make the governor's list.
There is some debate whether the governor's $425 million bond package would require endorsement by Alaska voters. It's a newfangled version of a revenue bond, which ordinarily doesn't require voter approval. However, to ensure a full airing of the $425 million worth of projects, and the new way of financing them, it would be best if the package were put to a statewide vote.
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