Lawmakers seek new ways to spend $450 million in funds

Posted: Thursday, December 01, 2005

Kenai Peninsula state lawmakers say there are projects in their districts that should see at least a portion of the $450 million formerly earmarked by Congress for Knik Arm and Ketchikan bridges.

Responding to outcries that those projects were “bridges to nowhere” and the expenditures a waste of federal tax dollars, Congress stripped the funds of their bridge designations, but agreed the state’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities should have the $450 million for use on other projects.

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, said he hopes to see DOT planners putting money back into projects deleted from the State Transportation Improvement Program, or STIP, when it appeared the federal money and any necessary state matching funds would be tied up in bridge earmarks.

One of those is a project to rebuild Kalifornsky Beach Road from Bridge Access in Kenai to Kalifornsky where it meets the Sterling Highway.

“That’s short about $7 million to do it the way DOT wants to design and build it,” Wagoner said. “It would be money well spent to do all at once and not in phases. It’s expensive for a contractor to mobilize and then demobilize and remobilize again. Doing it all at once could save the state some money.”

The road needs rebuilding, Wagoner said.

“It’s old, breaking up and narrow. There is lot of truck traffic because of gas development on the lower peninsula and it’s dangerous for that kind of truck traffic. There’s hardly any shoulder. Traffic has increased considerably, and with Wal-Mart coming, there will be a lot of shoppers coming from the lower peninsula.”

Another is reconstruction of Skilak Lake Loop Road connecting Sterling to Skilak Lake, which also was knocked off the STIP by the bridge earmarks, Wagoner said.

Asked who should decide where the suddenly freed-up $450 million should be spent, Wagoner said it should be left in the hands of planners at DOT.

“Let them reassess their top priorities and distribute the money as they always have,” he said. “That, to me, is the fairest way.”

“That’s exactly where I’m at,” said Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer. “We have been talking with the administration and other legislators and making that point — that we have a STIP process that evaluates projects, and if there is additional money, that it allows us to get them done.”

In dropping the earmarks, Congress did not say the controversial bridges could not be funded and built using the federal dollars.

“Congress just took out the mandate,” Seaton said.

Thus, it may become a political matter whether money is designated by the Legislature for those bridges after all or end up going to other projects.

Seaton said some of the money freed up in dumping the earmarks could be put to good use in his district.

For instance, the state’s Gravel to Black(top) Program lost $5 million of its anticipated $23 million budget because of the earmarks.

The Gravel to Black program is not part of the STIP process, but it is seen as a way to reduce long-term state maintenance costs. Skyline Drive and Diamond Ridge Road near Homer are in line for funding from that program.

As for the STIP, Seaton said he anticipates revamping the list and returning to it projects that had been cut, including upgrades to East End Road beyond McNeil Canyon, as well as improvements to the Sterling Highway between Anchor Point and Homer.

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Kenai, said it was too early to say which peninsula projects might be funded next year as a result of the sudden availability of the federal money. He agreed with Wagoner and Seaton that a fair way to handle the funding question would be through the STIP’s detailed point system that ranks projects from all over the state.

But he also said there were legislators likely to continue pushing for the Knik and Ketchikan bridge projects.

“There are probably a lot of people saying, “Look at that pot of money” and “How do I get my share?” he said.

John Manly, DOT commissioner, said the $450 million was to be spread out over five years. Typically, he said, Congress ends up funding about 85 percent of what they designate. What comes to the state is distributed by formula to various programs covering national and state highway, feeder routes and trails projects.

Even if the $450 million had remained earmarked to the bridges, it would have been insufficient to complete the projects without sizable state input, sizable even beyond the normal 20 percent match that bridge projects typically call for. He said the Ketchikan bridge was earmarked for $223 million but would have cost about $100 million over that.

The $229 million aimed at the Knik project was only about a third the expected cost. However, bonds paid off by tolls are a financing option for that project, Manly said.

As for the now-gone earmarks, Manly said, “It certainly gives the governor and the Legislature a whole lot more latitude about what they believe are going to be the priorities.”

Gov. Frank Murkowski is expected to announce how he wants the $450 million spent when he issues his proposed budget Dec. 15.

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