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How pet projects in Alaska became pet peeve on Hill

(Page 2 of 2)

In a city dominated by cookie-cutter condos and sprawling McMansion subdivisions, Government Hill is a throwback. Architectural masterpieces mix with refurbished Quonset huts and old-fashioned cabins. Its location on a bluff above downtown Anchorage gives it a microclimate warm enough for local gardeners such as Pease to grow apples, cherries, and other delicacies rarely found in Alaska.

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The social atmosphere is also warm. Government Hill denizens were invited recently to a celebratory picnic thrown by a pair of newlyweds and, Pease says, residents are known to barter garden produce for salmon.

"It's one of the few neighborhoods in Anchorage that has a real neighborhood feel to it," says Stephanie Kesler, president of the Government Hill Community Council.

The Knik Arm Bridge idea, too, has a long history, proposed in various forms since the 1950s, with boosters even then claiming Anchorage lacked sufficient space for development.

Justifications abound.

The "world-wide recognition which would accompany the construction of this unique and monumental project would certainly be valuable to the State of Alaska," said a 1972 study prepared for the state Department of Highways.

A state that inspires grand thinking

Such thinking may have spurred other mega-projects once embraced by state leaders but never realized. They have had plans to:

•Drop hydrogen bombs to carve out a deepwater port off northwest Alaska.

•Erect a domed city near Mount McKinley.

•Gouge a Bering Strait railroad tunnel to Russia.

•Hook up a water pipeline to California.

"We live in a grand state, and it inspires grand thinking, which can be a good thing until you take it to extremes. And then it gets a little ridiculous," says bridge opponent Emily Ferry, coordinator of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project in Juneau.

Like the Knik Arm project, the Gravina Island bridge has generated opposition from locals on more than fiscal grounds.

The bridge would link Ketchikan, population 7,700, to the island that holds the local airport and about 50 residents, now served by a ferry. It would be nearly as long as California's Golden Gate Bridge and tall enough to allow large cruise ships to pass beneath.

It would also open wild Gravina Island to timber cutting and other ecologically damaging development, critics say. They describe it as a multimillion-dollar logging road.

That doesn't faze proponents, who cite the need for resource development.

In response to withering public scorn, Congress stripped the earmarks for the bridges. But lawmakers gave Alaska the money for general transportation spending. Despite expressing misgivings, the state legislature allocated about $93 million from federal grants for the Knik Arm Bridge and about $91 million for the Gravina Bridge in this year's capital budget.

"I can't think of any bridge anywhere in the country that doesn't have a combination of both commercial as well as private uses," said Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) last month after signing a capital budget that includes money for both bridges.

Funding stream complicated by Congress

But a bill pending in Congress would prevent the state from spending those or any future federal dollars on either project. And the national embarrassment the bridges have caused the state may have sapped some political will to proceed.

Bottom line: It's not clear whether either project will be completed.

To secure other funding sources, the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority has new power to sell revenue bonds, thanks to separate legislation signed into law by Governor Murkowski. Skeptics say the authority's cost estimate of $600 million will be sorely tested.

The bridge also faces regulatory and permitting hurdles.

Government agencies are currently drafting the requisite environmental studies. The US Army Corps of Engineers has already blasted preliminary environmental studies as woefully inadequate. That is, in large part, because there has been an unsatisfactory justification for building the project at all, according to the Corps' critique.

Despite the backlash, bridge backers remain optimistic. On a sunny day last month at the public dock on the Anchorage side of Knik Arm, where he held a ceremony to sign the revenue-bond bill, Murkowski predicted that when Alaskans start driving over the bridge they will wonder how they ever managed without it.

"And people will say, 'Why didn't they make a four-lane or a six-lane out of it?' " said Murkowski, as fighter jets from a nearby military base and a bald eagle flew overhead. "The critics will say, 25 years from now, 'Why didn't you widen it?' "