JUNEAU — A project once held up as an example of government waste and derisively labeled a “bridge to nowhere” is getting another look by the state of Alaska.
The state recently proposed six “build” alternatives to improve access between the southeast Alaska community of Ketchikan and Gravina Island, which is the where the Ketchikan International Airport is located. The alternatives include two bridge and four ferry options; there also is a no-action alternative. Comments are being taken through Aug. 13, with a goal of having a final decision by next spring.
Still unknown is where the money to build a final project might come from. Department of Transportation spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said that will be sorted through later.
About $80 million remains from a $220-million federal earmark in 2005 for planning, design and construction, he said. Congress redirected much of that earmark, with money ultimately put toward other state projects after the bridge to Gravina became an object of national ridicule. Part also went toward planning, design and road work associated with Gravina, he said.
In 2007, with the project estimated at nearly $400 million, then-Gov. Sarah Palin directed the department to look at less expensive alternatives. As John McCain’s running mate in 2008 she said she had told Congress “thanks but no thanks” on the bridge, though the state still got money and she supported the project when she ran for governor. When she returned to Alaska following her unsuccessful 2008 campaign for the White House, she defended her use of the phrase “bridge to nowhere” in Ketchikan, saying it was widely known.
The community has pushed for increased access for decades, since the airport was built, and there’s a sense of frustration among some local leaders — who see the project as critical to the area’s growth — that the process isn’t farther along.
The borough has a population of about 14,000 people, a decent size by Alaska standards. Like most Alaska communities, it’s not connected to a road system and is accessible only by air or water. It’s also almost entirely made up of federal lands, leaving little room for development or additional housing as the region hopes to capitalize on a local shipyard expansion and potential mine projects, Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor Dave Kiffer said.
“As time goes on those opportunities go elsewhere and we become more and more dependent upon a single seasonal tourism industry,” he said in an email interview. “It is not a healthy community when most of the residents only work five or six months out of the year.”
He said significant land is available to build on the roughly 100-square-mile Gravina Island, which has about 75 fulltime residents, many of whom, he said, like living off the grid. Gravina hasn’t been developed further because people are worried about things like being stuck in an emergency and don’t want to be dependent on small boats during the frequent storms in the Tongass Narrows, he said.
Borough-operated ferries currently shuttle vehicles and passengers from Revillagigedo Island, home to the communities of Ketchikan and Saxman, across the narrows to Gravina, running about 16 hours a day during the summer fishing and tourist season and less in winter, he said. Since 2009, the ferries have carried between roughly 330,000 and 340,000 passengers a year after hitting a recent peak of about 420,000 in 2008.
“It is a chicken or egg situation, without additional infrastructure development on Gravina it is harder to justify the project, but without the project we certainly won’t have the additional infrastructure,” Kiffer wrote.
The state in 2008 completed a 3.2-mile road on Gravina Island that was connected to the project stalled by Palin. The department said construction was in the works prior to her announcement and federal funding remained tied to that piece of the project.
The department began to re-examine the project that same year, and recently came out with its draft supplemental report.
The bridge is far from the only project of its kind in Alaska, a developing state with significant infrastructure needs. There’s long been debate about building a road to improve access to Juneau, Alaska’s capital city, or a bridge connecting Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, a project that a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group recently dubbed another “bridge to nowhere.” There also are the roads to Umiat, Nome and Ambler, which supporters say will help improve access for resource development.
Lois Epstein, an engineer who has followed the Gravina project and works on Arctic transportation issues for The Wilderness Society, said the major question she has is whether the state can afford any of these in addition to all the energy projects it’s pursuing, including major dam and gas pipeline projects.
“We don’t have the financial plans for moving these forward,” she said.
Kiffer said local officials expect the bridge options proposed by the department to be deemed too expensive by the state and operation costs for enhanced ferry options to fall on local residents.
Ketchikan Mayor Lew Williams is glad the state is moving ahead on Gravina, but worries, too, about the funding and progress. He said his community is “sort of trapped” on Revillagigedo Island.
“If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” he said.
Alaska transportation department’s Gravina Island project site: http://1.usa.gov/13aQz5I