OPINION: Overpass damage shows need for Knik Arm Bridge

Wednesday, March 28, 2018 - 11:37

When a southbound truck slammed its oversized load into the Glenn Highway’s South Eagle River Road overpass last week, it did more than interrupt traffic for thousands of local residents and commuters. It reignited public discussion about just how vulnerable Southcentral Alaska’s transportation system really is.

Thankfully, no one was injured directly. But the collision damaged the overpass such that engineers with the Department of Transportation &Public Facilities shut down traffic, fearing chunks of concrete might continue falling from the bridge into southbound traffic.

The ensuing traffic snarls kept motorists idling on the highway for hours, stranded children on their way to and from schools, forced many state workers to abandon their daily commute to Anchorage and stay off the job, and prompted emergency medical responders to call for a helicopter to evacuate a motorist injured, ironically, in the traffic slowdown.

The Glenn Highway is the single most important road artery in the state, and serves vital interests in public safety, commerce, education, and social activity. It is unconscionable that so much rides on a single piece of transportation infrastructure, when the consequences of blockage are so severe.

The solution? The Knik Arm Crossing.

For decades, there have been plans to build a bridge from northwest Anchorage across Cook Inlet to the wide-open spaces of Point Mackenzie. The reasons are clear to anyone who looks at the map. While the Anchorage Bowl is filling up with buildings, roads, homes, shopping centers, parks, and commercial development, the empty land across the Inlet offers the opportunity for new space, new homes, new growth.

The Knik Arm Crossing would reduce the time and cost to transport goods from the Port of Alaska to the Interior. It would generate nearly 1,500 good-paying construction jobs that could help ease the state’s ongoing recession, and put Alaskans back to work building critical infrastructure. It would extend the useful life of the Glenn Highway and delay costly construction of extra lanes for many years.

It would significantly reduce the pressure for higher-density housing in our Chugiak-Eagle River neighborhoods, and let us preserve the large-lot neighborhoods and semi-rural character that attracted most of us to the area in the first place. It would maintain the strong value of the investments we’ve made in our homes and the high quality of life in our community.

Most important, the Knik Arm Crossing would provide an alternate transportation link, another way for motorists to move north and south between Anchorage and the rest of the state. So the next time traffic flow on the Glenn Highway was interrupted by a car accident, moose kill or icy roads — or even such extraordinary calamities as earthquake, road failure or bridge collapse — there will be a way for traffic to reroute itself, and for life to proceed safely and only a little less efficiently.

It’s important to remember that the Knik Arm Crossing is not a pipe dream, but a well-considered and well-planned project that has been the focus of attention and effort by some of the state’s top transportation planners and designers for years.

Plans call for a 1.74-mile causeway from the Government Hill neighborhood, across two lanes (in its first phase) of road to Point MacKenzie, where it would join with the existing road system in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

The project had completed permitting, had acquired necessary rights-of-way, and had completed engineering and construction plans. It had honed the economic and design plans to accommodate constructive and critical comments from the public.

It had arranged funding that called for $350 million in federal transportation loans backed by tolls, by $300 million in federal highway funds; and $50 million in National Highway System funds matched by $5 million in state funds.

But the momentum toward completion came to a screeching halt when Gov. Bill Walker vetoed the state funds in 2015, and diverted them to spend on the state ferry system, on a rural school, and on other state expenditures.

The plans, funding, permits and benefits of the Knik Arm Crossing remain in a state of suspended animation. The project awaits only the word “Go” from the governor, and we can begin the process of solving our region’s most pressing transportation need. Think about that next time you find yourself in stop-and-go traffic on the Glenn Highway.

When is the best time to build the Knik Arm Crossing? Ten years ago. When is the second-best time? Today!

Sen. Anna MacKinnon has served in the Alaska Legislature since 2007, and is co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Rep. Dan Saddler has served in the Alaska House since 2011 and is Minority Floor Leader.

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