House slides $19M toward unpopular road with no long-term plan

Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, during discussions about the sta
Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, during discussions about the state operating budget in the House Finance Committee, March 9. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

On Tuesday, House legislators moved $18,852,256 for a controversial road project in Anchorage opposed by community groups and the mayor’s administration, but long sought after by area businesses.

According to one of the amendment’s sponsors, Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, the reason for moving the unobligated funds for the Elmore Extension, aka the Bragaw Extension, into the capital budget is public safety, pointing out that trauma hospitals in the area say more road access is necessary to better treat emergency medical patients.

“It’s a public safety discussion,” Pruitt said by phone Wednesday. “It’s about getting access to Providence Hospital, access to the Alaska Native Medical Center, which is the highest tier of trauma center in Alaska.”

One of the strongest supporters of the project is the University of Alaska. University system President Jim Johnsen wrote in a letter to Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, that the university is willing to receive the leftover funds in order to keep the project alive.

“We believe there’s a big safety component to this,” Johnsen said, adding that other areas of support are for improved access to the university and surrounding neighborhoods.

According to Johnsen’s April letter, the project still needs the state’s Department of Transportation to build the actual road and pay for maintenance in the future.

“It would be critical for the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOTPF) to take full responsibility for project completion and, after completion, for DOTPF to be responsible for the maintenance of the northern access into the future,” Johnsen wrote.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said in December that the municipality no longer supports the Elmore Extension, and would like to see leftover funds reapplied to other projects, specifically improvements to the port.

Making the $18.8 million a capital expense leaves open the question of how to pay for future upkeep, according to Myer Hutchinson, communications director for the municipality. And the city isn’t interested in footing the bill, he added.

“We certainly won’t be spending any money maintaining a road we aren’t building, nor are required to maintain,” Hutchinson said.

Support for the amendment was split 8-3 along caucus lines, with the majority of votes in favor cast by lawmakers from districts outside Anchorage.

Opposition to the project from local community councils and conservation groups has been fierce.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, represents one of the districts in the vicinity. Even though construction is many steps from breaking ground, he doesn’t believe it’s sensible to spend money on an unpopular project in the current fiscal environment.

“It’s unwarranted to pursue the road,” Josephson said. “I think it’s especially true (when) the budget for the university itself has been slashed $50 million, and hundreds of professors and staff are going be thrown out of work.”

Josephson said he plans to introduce amendments before the full House to reapply the funds elsewhere.

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