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Public Support for Big Projects in Bond Prop A is Limited

Fairbanks, AK  - When Voters go to the polls Tuesday, they’ll decide whether the state should sell more than 453 million dollars in bonds to pay for transportation and economic development projects.  It’s one of the largest Bond Propositions in Alaskan history.  One Fairbanks area project does not have support from the community, but it’s not the only unpopular project on the list.

A proposed road connecting the Old Steese Highway with McGrath Road in Fairbanks, plows through wetlands along the northern edge of Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge.  It also crosses historic mushing trails, and cuts straight through a popular duck pond.   Funding for a preliminary road study comes from the federal government.  If voters pass Bonding Proposition A, 24 million dollars in state funding would pay for a nearly identical effort.  This particular project only accounts for five percent of Prop A.  Even so, more than 200 people gathered to hear about it last month.\

The list of proposed transportation and economic development projects included in the measure is long, and the road through the bird refuge isn’t the only proposal that’s controversial. The Sitka Assembly rejected a resolution to support a road to Katlian Bay.  Two major south central projects in the proposition have also garnered negative attention. Governor Parnell originally proposed a smaller, 350 million dollar bond package, mostly to pay for the Port of Anchorage expansion and an Alaska Railroad extension to Port Mackenzie.  Legislators chiseled the Governor’s request down to 80 million dollars.  Then they added their own projects to the bill.

“Well sometimes people will say, ‘Uh Oh, this bill is becoming a Christmas Tree," says Rebecca Braun.  She’s the Editor and Publisher of the Alaska Budget Report, which tracks the state’s budgeting process.  She says Bond propositions are one of the only ways projects in smaller communities get funding. “Everybody sees a bill that’s moving and they all want to hanging their ornament on it and sometimes legislators will say, you know, ‘If we Christmas Tree this bill too much, it’s gonna fall under its own weight.’”

Republican Representative Steve Thompson is running unopposed this year. He helped add the Creamer’s Field Refuge road connector and a local bridge replacement to the package.  “I don’t think we had any other projects of this magnitude that we could put into that bond package, so it was like ‘Ok, if we want to try to get  a couple of things done, then we have to put these two in,” he says.

Thompson says in all the years he’s been to public meetings, he hasn’t seen the community so opposed to a state funded proposal.  “I wish that would have been written different had we known that there was this much opposition and also the amount of wetlands and some things,” he says.

Since 1960, Alaskans have cast ballots for just six Bond Propositions larger than this year’s.  But back then, Alaskans paid state income tax, so bond propositions that passed translated to a direct increase in their taxes.
Rebecca Braun says these days, a disconnect between legislators and their constituents means funding for unpopular projects can pass more easily.  “Legislators tend to be most in touch with what they consider to be community leaders in their districts," says Braun.  "And that’s often chamber of commerce, builders, people who want projects, they want the economic develop they want the jobs and sometimes there are big factions of the general public who have other concerns that don’t get heard so much.”

Of the 94 Bonding Propositions that have appeared on Alaska’s ballot, only seven have failed.  Only one of those came with a dollar amount larger than the 453 million dollars in this year’s.  Nevertheless, Representative Thompson says he doesn’t think there is enough statewide opposition for voters to reject it.