Reports Still Withheld: Consultants Hired for Data or Deliberations?
In what may be his final action on the Knik Arm Crossing project, on November 19, 2014 Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner Patrick Kemp denied the administrative appeal of Government Hill Community Council President Stephanie Kesler’s Public Records Act request for release of the long promised socioeconomic reports (see earlier posts below) on the project.
With the assistance of Assistant Attorney General David Jones and Knik Arm Crossing Project Director Judy Dougherty, Commissioner Kemp stated the reports are still incomplete and so Ms. Kesler’s June, and August 2014 PRA requests were not valid. Per the schedule announced by KABATA in mid-2013, the Cardno/Agnew::Beck socioeconomic report with new population and employment forecasts was to be a three month project which was due to complete over a year ago.
State records show both Cardno and CDM Smith have been paid a total over $1.3 million by KABATA and the Department of Transportation in the past two years, so it is not clear how just “chapters” and not the entire studies were allegedly complete. What is clear is that the reports are a necessary precursor to the revised federal TIFIA loan letter of interest. Unfortunately, delay in providing those reports severely limits opportunity for the public and local officials to comment on the new population projection data, estimated toll revenue, and the resulting revised financial plan before consideration of the plan by federal officials during the TIFIA application process.
The Knik Bridge project has been turned down six times for a needed federal TIFIA loan; the legislature’s commitment for state bonds and future transportation funds for what DOT&PF continues to claim will be a $894 million project, is contingent upon the receipt of an approximate $343 M federal loan.
In denying the administrative appeal, the state argued that it was entitled to the “deliberative process” case law exemption from the state Public Records Act because the consultant work was in effect embedded in the state’s decision making process. Commissioner Kemp did not cite any information from existing contracts with the consultants to back up the state’s claim that the consultants were to play a part in the decision making process. Rather, the “Statement of Services” in the 2013 RFP done for the revised population projections by KABATA made clear that the chosen consultant was to produce “data” and for the consultant to present their “findings” to the Department and the legislature.
When Knik Arm Crossing Project Director Judy Dougherty and the consultants present to Anchorage Metropolitan Area Solutions (AMATS) and Muni Planning and Zoning members on December 8, 2014, the public will presumably learn for the first time about the new foundational population and employment estimates for the project promised after a scathing LB&A audit came out in April, 2013. KABATA signed an agreement with AMATS in August, 2013 to provide AMATS socioeconomic data for the scheduled 2015 update by AMATS of the 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP). Because, that data has not been shared with the Muni, AMATS has had to hire a separate consultant to produce independent revised population and traffic estimates to try to stay on schedule for the revised LRTP due to be completed in 2015. As explained in earlier posts, because the socioeconomic studies were not required to be coordinated with each other, there will now likely be three different assumptions used by the Mat-Su Borough, AMATS and DOT/KABATA for their various transportation effort.
Countdown to More Transparency?
Stephanie Kesler has 30 days from the November 19, 2014 denial of administrative appeal to take the Commissioner Kemp’s decision to the state superior court. By then some of the reports information may be released at the December 8 DOT presentation and there may be a new Department of Transportation Commissioner who has a different understanding of the state Public Records Act and more willingness to share project data with the public and local officials.