by John Cowdery
November 30, 2004
I propose that we locate the new Capitol building in the Point MacKenzie area. Once the Knik Arm Crossing is built, Anchorage will have the room it needs to grow and the vast majority of Alaskans will finally have some real access to state government.
This is not about taking the seat of government away from Juneau. This is about giving everyday Alaskans the ability to see how their government really works and to voice their opinion on issues in person, instead of making a phone call or sending an e-mail. It is also about replacing the Capitol building in a way that makes both political and economic sense.
Placing the new Capitol in the Mat-Su Borough where it can be connected to the state's highway system makes it easily accessible for approximately 70 percent of the population. Alaskans as far south as Homer to communities north of the Arctic Circle and everything in between will have the ability to hop in their cars and attend the legislative session.
Anchorage is also the air transportation crossroads for the state. Alaskans who are not connected to the road system will have a much easier time reaching lawmakers that are located just a dozen or so miles from the state's largest airport after the Knik Arm Crossing is built. In contrast, Juneau's airport is frequently closed because of bad weather every winter.
There is no question that the existing Capitol needs to be replaced. It does not have enough space for lawmakers and their staff and the public galleries are too small to seat all the people who want to watch floor sessions. The parking situation has become so bad that staffers and visitors have to park their cars blocks away from the building because there are no spaces left in the parking lot.
Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho wants to keep the legislative session in his city by replacing the 75-year-old Capitol with a new building on Telephone Hill in downtown Juneau. The mayor wants to pay for the $100 million project by having his city offer revenue bonds to pay for the construction costs. Those bonds would be paid back with lease payments made by the state.
I fully support the mayor's plan to build a new Capitol that all Alaskans can be proud of. However, as a former contractor, I know this project has several construction challenges.
The Telephone Hill site is a minuscule 4.2 acres. This postage stamp size lot also comes with a number of tricky engineering and design problems. The steep grade, elevation and rocky terrain make it a poor site for a Capitol building and undoubtedly make the project more expensive than it would otherwise be.
Several recent newspaper stories about the Telephone Hill site have quoted architects who agree it has engineering problems and that it will also be difficult to provide enough public space at the facility.
Mayor Botelho and his Capitol Planning Commission are forging ahead with a design competition for this site when there is virtually no support in the Legislature for their dubious plan.
If we look at other states with populations similar to Alaska, it is clear their Capitol buildings sit on much larger and much more practical sites. North Dakota's Capitol rests on a whopping 132 acres. I don't think a site that large is needed. However, my construction experience tells me that 40 acres will provide plenty of room for all the amenities that our current Capitol lacks and that the Telephone Hill site would have difficulty providing.
Large open tracts of land are plentiful and cheap in the Mat-Su Valley. Steep mountains and the ocean that surrounds Juneau means there are probably no suitable locations that provide all the advantages that the Mat-Su Valley does.
Our state faces many fiscal challenges in the years ahead. The brief financial windfall from high oil prices gives the state the chance to catch up on deferred maintenance projects that benefit the largest number of Alaskans possible. In my opinion, a new Capitol building in Juneau does not meet that standard.
A new state Capitol building in the Point MacKenzie area does far more than meet that standard. It ultimately creates a citizenry that is more involved and committed to good government.
Editor's Note: Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, represents District O in the Alaska Senate and is chairman of the Senate Rules and Transportation committees.
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