Brennan: New look at Knik Crossing

By Tom Brennan |

This week’s goat-rope on the Glenn Highway has already got people thinking about the old Knik Arm Crossing once again.

Having only one way in and one way out of Anchorage can be a real nuisance when some truck driver miscalculates his vehicle height and smashes into a bridge.

Rep. Dan Saddler of Eagle River led the chorus on Thursday when he took the House floor in Juneau and argued that the project would have prevented the traffic meltdown that started bad and went rapidly downhill from there.

He is right about that. The Knik Crossing would indeed have eased the traffic problems that had some Anchorage workers spending seven hours or more getting to their jobs from homes in the Matanuska Valley.

The Knik bridge plan was dumped by Gov. Bill Walker two years ago. It was opposed by people who thought the money — it would have taken the best part of a billion dollars , including a bunch of federal money — could be better spent on other projects. The bridge would have been 1.74 miles long with 18 miles of connector roads and a tunnel under Government Hill.

One of the concerns about the bridge was that it could interfere with operations at the Port of Anchorage, now known as the Port of Alaska. I had a lot of reservations of my own about the project, especially because it was going to be a toll road. So if Valley drivers had the option of paying a toll they would be disinclined to use the bridge unless it would save enough driving to offset the toll. And the way things were going when Walker pulled the plug, there would have been little if any financial benefit to drivers using the toll road.

Those stuck in the huge traffic jam this week would have leaped at the chance to pay a toll, but boneheaded truck drivers able to take out a bridge don’t come along often enough to justify building a toll bridge. It is, however, time to take a new look at the project and see if the problems can be resolved and whether the Knik Arm Crossing makes more sense now than it seemed to in 2016.

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One thing that bothers me about the proposed merger of Anchorage’s Municipal Light & Power utility with Chugach Electric Co. is — besides the stealthy way the merger was handled by those putting the deal together — the argument that the merger will eliminate duplication. The problem is that whenever advocates mention eliminating duplication they then add that there will be no layoffs.

In other words, those currently on staff at the two utilities will have lifetime job guarantees. Somehow natural attrition is supposed to reduce the payroll burden in a few years. Yeah, right. Under those circumstances, people are unlikely to quit or retire unless they have better alternatives. It seems very likely that a lot of those people will hang onto their jobs for years. And, if they do, how does Chugach propose to eliminate duplication? If it shuts down any plant facilities, what happens to the operators?

Both utilities have members in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Chugach Electric. The union is a powerful advocate for its members but its political weight is far more significant at Chugach than at ML&P.

Under those circumstances any real reduction in operating costs seems unlikely for a long time. Many people like the idea of combining the two utilities but there is a big difference between a good idea and a good business decision.

The way this deal went down there is no way for voters to know whether it is or is not a good business decision. There was no formal Request for Proposals but several utilities received telephone calls soliciting offers. At least a few of those looked better than the Chugach Electric deal.

The offer from Fairbanks was just one.

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