Brennan: Goodbye to Alaska megaprojects

By Tom Brennan

Ding dong the witch is dead. Gov. Bill Walker announced the other day that he is killing off the remaining vestiges of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority.

The Knik Arm bridge was one of those many misguided megaprojects that the state initiated in the days when Alaska’s state leaders saw so much money flooding into the treasury from oil production that they couldn’t find enough ways to spend it.

Work on the billion-dollar bridge and the proposed Watana Dam, a 700-foot power generator proposed to be built on the Susitna River 90 miles from Talkeetna, is to be wrapped up within the next months. The $40 million in unspent federal funds designated for the project will be redirected to other state projects.

Kabata’s five-person staff, all employees of the state Department of Transportation, were pulled off bridge-related duties more than a year ago and presumably reassigned to other positions within the department. The studies will be placed on the shelf for future reference when the bridge is needed and actually makes economic sense.

According to DOT spokesperson Shannon McCarthy the state is required to reimburse federal funds used to purchase the right-of-way if the state hasn’t started construction by 2031. Let’s hope the state and federal governments can somehow make that problem go away, though it seems likely to cost somebody money.

How much of the $76 million in federal money went for right-of-way purchase is unknown, though the only known clearing was a swath through Anchorage’s Government Hill neighborhood. About four homes were removed and an old motel was torn down. The Government Hill Community Council and volunteers are working to develop a community commons, to include an orchard, on a portion of the cleared right of way.

Building the bridge someday should make sense, though that time is not likely to come within the next generation or two. The bridge would open access to large tracts of developable land on the west side of Knik Arm and upper Cook Inlet. It would also shorten the drive to the Big Lake area, where many Mat-Su residents live.

State Sen. Tom Begich, a Democrat who represents Government Hill, told a KTVA interviewer that “the day of the megaprojects is over.” Remember the 370-foot dam proposed for the salmon-rich Talkeetna River, and a number of smaller projects that actually went ahead, like grain elevators, the little-used train terminal at Anchorage International Airport, an unused fish plant and a state-financed dairy in which millions were invested long after the dairy was needed.

It certainly looks like the days of such ill-advised ventures is over for now, at least. And after what Alaska went through during the megaproject era and is facing with its economy over the next few years, it seems unlikely that such a repetitive burst of dumb and premature proposals will be repeated.

Though crossing Knik Arm with some sort of bridge seems inevitable someday, this could be the end of the Watana Dam, a hydroelectric project. That massive structure above Devil’s Canyon would have been 705 feet high and drowned a length of river 32 miles long by a mile wide.

Assuming fish runs could be protected, the dam’s environmental impact would have been relatively modest by dam standards, but the project’s electricity generating capacity was rendered unnecessary when abundant sources of natural gas were discovered in Lower Cook Inlet. With those and the possibility of gas being delivered from the North Slope one day, Watana seems unlikely to make any priority lists for many years to come, if ever.

DOT’s Shannon McCarthy says the Knik Arm project has burned up $10 million in state funds and $76 million in federal money since the toll authority started operations in 2003. Earlier estimates from a few years back put the state-federal spending total at $130 million. We’ll give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt and look at the numbers disparity with our usual jaundiced eye.

Eighty-six million is nothing to sneeze at either.

2 Responses to Brennan: Goodbye to Alaska megaprojects

  1. Les Brown May 14, 2017 at 9:47 am

    And yet the pipedream pipeline lingers on. Has no one a sharp wooden stake to drive through the heart of this undead monster?

  2. Morrigan May 17, 2017 at 10:12 am

    One can imagine the quid pro quo going on among lobbyists, contractors, legislators, and perhaps most importantly, Native corporations who have the most to gain from “8a” contracts.

    Sure, certain “megaprojects” may be put into hibernation (not scrapped, don’t ever believe that), but you can bet Walker’s gas line will become a major, nonnegotiable priority so these groups can still get the money they were promised.


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