Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Thank You Sen. Gardner and Rep. Josephson

Alaskan Republican law makers - along with the Governor - tell us that we have to cut spending.  Our revenues are declining and will continue to.  (Despite the fact that the Governor got his bill passed last year to return $2 billion a year to the oil companies so that they will increase oil production and the revenues.)  But there's at least one project that nobody in the neighborhood wants, but which was earmarked $20 million at the very last minute in the legislature last year. 

The extension of Bragaw (now Elmore on one end) through the University of Alaska Anchorage campus is a project only the Department of Transportation, the Mayor, and Republican legislators want.

Every public meeting on this project resulted in overwhelming rejection by people in the neighborhood.

Who wants this project?  My guess it's the construction industry.  It seems the one area where the governor has no problem spending money is construction.

Here's what Cheryl Richardson, head of the Anchorage Citizens' Coalition, and a community watchdog on transportation issues for years and years wrote:

Twenty million dollars to fund the Bragaw Extension showed up in the state’s capital budget at 11 p.m. the night before the session ended, April 14.
Until then, elected officials representing neighborhoods directly affected by the cut through were confident they had protected their constituents’ desire to prevent it. Every community council surrounding this road objects to its construction.
But there it was, a last minute addition of $20 million in a state capital budget that had been slashed from 2012’s $2.5 billion to 2013’s $1.3 billion. In a capital budget where a $2 million project was considered “huge.”
Who has the power to fund such a huge, unpopular project? No one is taking credit at this point.
Charles Wohlforth recently devoted an hour on talk radio to explore the UMed Bragaw cut through. He invited the Municipality who asked for the funding, the Alaska Department of Transportation who is managing the money, and Dowl Engineers who are contracted to produce the design and construction studies to discuss the issue.
Not one person from the state, the muni or Dowl was free to speak on Wohlforth’s program. It was too “controversial.” In decades of building “controversial projects,” this is a first. Not one official representative was willing to go on the record.
I'd note that Dowl, who Richardson says here "are contracted to produce the design  and construction studies" are also the company that conducted the public hearings that invited public comment and presented those findings.  Dowl clearly has a conflict of interest here because their recommendations for building the road, despite public opposition, lead to further income for their firm.  And they subcontract with most of the companies likely to do the actual construction of the road.  The public testimony was overwhelmingly against the project, but not doing the project was not an option. 

If they were instructed to build the road no matter what the public says, then we should know who gave those instructions and what the purpose of the citizens participation was. 

But two Democratic legislators - Sen. Berta Gardner and Rep. Andy Josephson - both representing the area where the road is scheduled to be built, and representing the Senate and House seats where I live, introduced a bill to take back the funding for the road.  They've heard, they say, enough opposition from their constituents, that they have filed this legislation.   (See an American Planning Association reprint of a Sunday Anchorage Daily News report.)

I'm not sure how Republicans can support this road with a straight face.  They complain that we have to cut back education spending and that our revenues are declining and that government spending in general is too high.  But they are supporting the spending of $20 million to build a road no one in the community wants.

No one has identified the people who are so powerful that they got this money tacked on to the budget in the waning minutes of the legislature.  I'm guessing that if we check the campaign contributions to the mayor of Anchorage and to the legislators who added this money into the budget, we'll probably see the names of people and companies that will end up with parts of the $20 million contracts to build the road.  Who else wants it?  Possibly Providence Hospital but my understanding is that the University of Alaska Anchorage, while going along at the end, was not an instigator of this.  And if you had taken a vote of the faculty and students it likely would have been against the road.

At the meetings I went to, the posted evidence for the road, wasn't compelling.  They showed in one display various intersections near the University and showed how many minutes a car would save if the new road were in.  The savings were in prime time.  The most savings were 3 minutes as I recall.  And these are obviously calculations.  So to save  rush hour drivers (rush hour is about an hour, four days a week when the university is in session) 3 minutes, we will destroy an intact ecosystem where moose and other animals can freely travel.  And spend $20 million from a budget which the Governor has claimed was way too high.  Actually, it looks like it's at least $20 million more, not to mention continuing maintenance costs and I'm guessing expansion from two to four lanes not too far down the line.

I think about this as Anchorage's Central Park.  It's large, relatively undisturbed area in the middle of urban Anchorage, and area that is becoming less and less urban every year.  In thirty years, this will be seen - if any of it is left - as an urban oasis.  The fact that it's been preserved this long is fantastic.  Imagine how much it would cost to buy the land to make Central Park in New York now.  It would be simply impossible.  We have that land already preserved, but the Department of Transportation and the people the funnel construction money to want to rip right through it for a road.  I'm not saying the road won't be a little more convenient for some people, but I'm saying the price (in the intact system that will be disrupted) is way too high.  And after they added the $20 million into the law, we learned that it will actually cost another $20 million actually.

They simply want to rip through that land now so they've got the damage done, and then come back to 'clean it up.'  Again from the ADN report reprinted at the American Planning Association website:

Miyashiro said it's likely a two-lane road, less than a mile in length, will be built. He said he expects costs to fall under the $20 million budget, although early, leaked, estimates pinned some routes at nearly double that. 
They're even doing it without federal money so they can avoid environmental impact studies as they go through a boggy wetland.  

So I want to salute Gardner and Josephson for their action.  As minority party members I suspect this bill will have little traction, but the majority party will have to hide it in a committee somewhere and it will eat a little bit of more of their souls.  

[A reader called me last week saying that the Governor's proposal on education in his State of the State must have gotten to me because he thought my post showed a little more emotion in my response than usual.  I'm sure that he'll think it's more true of this post.  But I see these actions as doing serious damage to the social and physical fabric of our state.  It's like people going into the Louvre and tossing out the great art and turning the building over to one of their donors.  AND they are going to pay the donor to refurbish the building.

If I sound a bit less restrained than usual, it's because I've been watching what I think is a crime taking place for the last couple of years.  It's politicians transferring public money to corporations for a project that the most directly affected citizens do not want and have made that clear repeatedly.  And not only are they 'stealing' public money, they are destroying a well loved and environmentally sensitive natural area that will be forever scarred by a road cutting right through it.  

I can hear the engineers at Dowl who conducted the public hearings and at the DOT pointing to reasons why this needs to be done.  My response is:  if they are wrong, it can never be undone.  If I'm wrong, the road can still be built in the future. 

"Follow the money" is a phrase popularized by the movie All the President's Men about Watergate.  Deepthroat, the under cover informant repeatedly tells this to the Washington Post  reporters trying to tie the Watergate break-in back to the White House.   

Alaska needs a crew of citizens and journalists doing nothing but following the money.  When a million or ten million is appropriated for projects such as this road - or the indoor tennis courts, or the Knik Arm Crossing - we need to track which companies and individuals actually end up getting that money.  I suspect we'll see that ideology and public good play a much smaller role in Alaska spending than does private gain.  (If it didn't, it would make Alaska unique.)  But unless people can follow the money trail, they can't evaluate 1) whether we're getting good value for our money, 2) whether the project really needed to be done, and 3) which politicians are merely funneling money and other favorable treatment to their bigger financial supporters.

The Corrupt Bastards Club disbanded less than ten years ago. 

For those of you who read this blog, like my caller, because you see it as more objective and even handed than other blogs, I ask your indulgence.  Consider this post as notes, as a draft, as preparation for posts on the topic that will have more hard facts.  On the Bragaw extension through the University land, I assure you,  I've been to three public hearings and read countless documents, and talked to some of the players.  I've given you some links that support what I say (and saw), but a detailed report on all of this is beyond my time constraints right now.    But rest assured, I wouldn't take the strong position I'm taking here if I hadn't looked at this closely and didn't feel confident about my position.

And I want to thank my caller for telling me his thoughts.  It makes the time and care I try to put into most posts worth the effort.  So thanks.]

1 comment:

  1. Building more roads to cure traffic congestion is like buying a bigger belt to cure obesity. A paraphrased comment from cycling advocate Stephen Goddard.


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