The Alaska Legislature’s April adjournment left KABATA without the state guarantee needed to move the project forward. As a result, in an attempt to appear responsive to legislator concerns, KABATA has launched a flurry of activities. However, the result will most likely be another numbers gridlock in the legislature.
New Consultants and New Planning Process: The Government Funded Train Wreck
Recent KABATA activities are listed below with italics highlighting the departures from standard practice that foreshadow next year’s expected legislative train wreck.
First, in response to the LB&A audit, KABATA announced that they would hire a new firm to review and revise the socioeconomic data of previous contractors that led to a traffic and revenue forecast that the LB&A audit characterized as undocumented and overly optimistic. On May 22, KABATA issued a press release asking for proposals for a mere 2 weeks later to produce new projections of populations, households, and jobs by traffic analysis zones (TAZ), or neighborhoods, for the 2015-2040 period as well as to revise the 2012 baseline data for Anchorage and Mat-Su. The RFP asked for baseline data due by 7/31/13 and a final report by 8/15/13; this requires significant data gathering and analysis to be performed relatively quickly. This rushed schedule is apparently necessary so new demographic information can be used to produce a new traffic and revenue forecast to replace the Wilbur Smith and Associates Toll forecast that was discredited by the legislative audit as undocumented and unreasonably optimistic.
Separate Planning Processes
AMATS, the State and Municipality of Anchorage joint planning committee is the federally designated Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the Anchorage area and as the MPO, it produced the traffic analysis zone (TAZ) data of people, households and jobs by neighborhood that underlies the adopted 2035 Metropolitan Transportation Plan.
Curiously, the KABATA RFP Statement of Services (see page 13) requires the contractor to consult with numerous organizations but not AMATS, the Municipality of Anchorage, or the Mat Su Borough. The RFP makes clear the KABATA product is to be an “independent” forecast and analysis from data used by Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough. The practical effect of this RFP is to ensure that KABATA will continue to do separate planning based on what they expect to be higher growth numbers than are used as the basis for current South-central transportation plans. In effect KABATA will not need to coordinate or accept the population and job forecast of existing transportation plans or the role of AMATS as the MPO.
On May 9, 2013 Jamie Kenworthy briefed the Technical Advisory Committee of AMATS on lessons from the LB&A audit, the growth in the Bridge cost, and the need for KABATA to work with AMATS to produce transparent traffic analysis zone data on population, and household, and job numbers. Those analyses would have to be complete by the end of the year in order for the legislature to have a single set of demographic assumptions in front of them or, if KABATA’s assumptions differ, the reasons why the estimates differ. The AMATS committee briefly discussed the feasibility of updating their current TAZ data and releasing it to the public by the end of the year but no commitment was made.
During the discussion of the 2035 update to the Anchorage Transportation Plan in 2012, Municipality of Anchorage, consultant Jon Spring produced data and maps showing the KABATA’s and AMATS differing KNIK Goose Bay Road and Point MacKenzie population and job projections. But because Mr. Spring’s presentation was during a TAC work session, those materials were not made public and no mention of the discussion is available in AMATS minutes.
A third planning project is also underway with Tom Brigham of contractor HDR Inc. working with the Mat-Su Borough on early plans for a Wasilla bypass between the general areas of Glenn-Parks intersection and the Parks Highway-Big Lake turnoff. Before recommending a general route for the bypass, Brigham is updating land use changes based on the 2010 Census, revising the TAZ data for the Mat Su Borough, and using the traffic model AMATS used in preparing their 2035 Anchorage Plan to project future demand.
And what Bridge assumption is HDR using in assigning traffic flowing north-south through the Anchorage-Mat-Su area in planning a possible Wasilla bypass? Rather than model both a Bridge or no Bridge scenario or having to show a lower volume of Bridge traffic than predicted by KABATA numbers, Brigham is threading the needle by following the Bridge assumption in the Anchorage 2035 Plan. The adopted Anchorage Plan included the Bridge with the now discredited approximately 36,000 trips a day in 2035 that KABATA projects but only through the manipulation of modeling the Bridge as no toll facility to make the high number look more feasible.
Research shows that tolls reduce demand significantly and on average drivers will choose a 5-8 mile detour to avoid paying them. There are no current plans for a non-toll Bridge – the choice is toll Bridge or no Bridge — so plugging an impossible condition into the HDR traffic model could compromise the data used to plan the Wasilla bypass project.
Meet the New Consultant, Same as the Old Consultant?
On April, 23, 2013 KABATA Board Chairman Michael Foster told the KABATA Board that given the LB&A audit, KABATA was prepared to redo the demographic and traffic data to provide the legislature with accurate data. Foster contrasted the “micro approach” the LB&A traffic consultant took with the “macro approach” KABATA’s consultants chose. Interestingly, Chairman Foster appeared to have telegraphed KABATA’s intent to stick with the larger discredited growth model for the Mat-Su Borough by stating that Knik-Fairview will be the fourth largest city in the state.
KABATA Board members Transportation Commissioner Kemp and Revenue Commissioner Butcher were both present at the April Board meeting and they referenced discussions with the Governor’s office to second the Chairman’s indication that KABATA needed to provide accurate data to the legislature. Neither Commissioner indicated if they agreed or disagreed with the Chairman’s apparent conviction regarding a high growth scenario for the Mat-Su Borough.
On June 12, KABATA announced that Australian firm Cardno Inc. in association with Anchorage firm Agnew::Beck had won the up to $150,000 contract to provide new TAZ data with a final report (now due 9/30/13).
Funding Confusion in Transportation Planning?
KABATA has now spent over $75 million of the original approximate $114 million. While the original federal earmark is now state funds that can be spent on any eligible transportation project, the Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) has to approve the release of those funds for the new $150,000 consultant contract.
On June 25, 2013, former Government Hill Community Council President Bob French wrote FHWA, (click here for the letter) reminding them that in their 2011 recertification of AMATS as the Metropolitan Planning Organization, FHWA strongly suggested the KABATA project be integrated with Anchorage Transportation Plan, including a budget showing how Bridge and non-Bridge improvements were reasonably likely to be funded from expected revenue. French’s note asked how FHWA could have federal funds now underwrite KABATA’s separate planning function and demographic data without KABATA being required to coordinate with AMATS.
To date, FHWA has not responded to Bob French so it remains likely that federal funds will continue to underwrite three apparently uncoordinated planning functions that could well be based on three different sets of TAZ data on neighborhood population and job numbers: the new KABATA contract, the Wasilla bypass study, and the existing AMATS transportation plan based on TAZ data that may or may not be updated before the end of the year.
Without FHWA intervention on the new KABATA contract, a more proactive AMATS, or a new commitment of KABATA to coordinate with other agencies and units of government, it remains likely that the confusion of numbers on future regional population and job forecasts will again be dumped on the legislature when they reconvene in January, 2014.
Finally, the Department of Revenue announced on July 10, 2013 that they would reissue the RFP to assess the financial feasibility of the Knik Arm project. The last attempt by the Department of Revenue to award of the last contract to perform was canceled when it became clear that the work would not be performed before the end of the legislative session after the former firm of Deputy Treasurer and KABATA Board member Angela Rodell protested the award to another firm and the Department of Revenue referred the protest to the Department of Law. (See 4/26/13 Post below “Department of Revenue: The Conveniently Canceled Financial Review.”) Proposals are due 7/31/13 for the one year (with two one year extensions) less than $100 K project consultant to advise on financial terms for the project. The RFP notes that the State Senate is expected to act on SB 13 or CSHB 23 during the 2014 legislative session but “the final form of the bill(s) and which will pass is unknown at this time.”
Project Wins “Golden Fleece” Award
Citing “a decade of waste,” on June 26, 2013, Washington DC-based Taxpayers for Common Sense awarded the Knik Bridge project its non-coveted Golden Fleece Award, see here for the press release.
In reaction, KABATA said that “nearly all” of the claimed $715 Million cost for the Bridge would be paid for by Alaskans. Click here for reporting on KABATA’s response.
Taxpayers for Common Sense cited a $1.621 Billion, not $715 Million, as the cost of the Bridge, a number taken from KABATA’s latest December 2012 Financial Plan which was included in the April, 2013 LB&A audit, see p. 25 of the audit. (The Bridge priced tag jumped $500 Million when the cost of a four lane Bridge was included since all previous Phase 1 KABATA Financial Plans had included the revenue from 4 lanes but only the cost of building 2 lanes. Under this latest KABATA Plan, the estimated contractor payments over 35 years is $3.3 Billion, see p. 33 of the audit.)
The Anchorage and Juneau papers picked up the national AP announcement of the award. On that Sunday the Anchorage Daily News usually tongue in cheek Ear column mentioning the award was titled “We Win Again”.
Juneau Empire: Group sees Knik Arm project as example of waste
Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman: D.C. group blasts KABATA as Geotech Work for Bridge Begins