FAIRBANKS — Twenty-one ceremonial shovels were wielded at the groundbreaking for the Tanana River bridge, which said something about both the profile of the project and the anticipation behind Wednesday’s event.
After nearly a decade of planning, regulatory hurdles and funding headaches, more than 100 dignitaries and spectators arrived to formally celebrate the arrival of the $190 million bridge along a secluded stretch of the river in Salcha.
“This is a great day,” Rep. Don Young said. “We’re finally going to build a bridge to somewhere.”
The new bridge will span a 3,300-foot section of the Tanana River, marking the first phase of a four-phase project that planners hope will eventually bring a new rail line to Delta Junction.
Planning for the project began in 2002, and federal funding for environmental studies of the site began in 2004. Funding challenges and lengthy environmental reviews kept it on hold until this year, when the state supplied $44 million needed to fully fund the project. The bridge is scheduled for completion in August 2014.
That slow pace was reflected in some of the politicians, past and present, who were on hand. Former Gov. Frank Murkowski started lobbying for the bridge project during his term, which ended more than five years ago. The late Sen. Ted Stevens, who was credited by several speakers for generating early funding for the project, didn’t live to see its groundbreaking.
“We all know that good things don’t come easy, but sometimes we wish they’d come a little bit easier,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Once it’s completed — along with a still-unfunded 80-mile rail line to Delta — the bridge will give various military forces year-round access to some of the most remote training areas available in the country.
Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, who lobbied for bridge funding in Juneau last session, said the bridge will boost training opportunities at the Delta and Tanana Flats military ranges. Access to those training grounds currently relies on a seasonal ice bridge across the Tanana.
“I see a bridge, but I also see unbelievable opportunity for the safety and security of this nation,” he said.
The new bridge, however, also carries dreams that go beyond those training grounds.
Sen. John Coghill said he’s heard people pondering an Alaska rail extension to the east since he was a boy growing up in Nenana. He views the bridge project as the first phase of that long-awaited transportation link.
“We’ve got a long way to go before we hit Canada,” Coghill said. “We’re going to get there, as far as I’m concerned.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Rep. Eric Feige, who said his “ultimate dream” is a rail project that will eventually connect Alaska with the Lower 48.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Assemblyman Tim Beck was part of an Alaska Department of Transportation team that surveyed a proposed rail route from Eielson Air Force to the Canada border. That occurred in 1982.
“It’s not like this is a new concept, but it’s good to see it happen,” Beck said.