With Palin absent, 'bridge to nowhere' supporters remain

Project would connect Ketchikan with its airport on Gravina

Posted: Sunday, January 24, 2010

With former Gov. Sarah Palin no longer on the state's scene, Ketchikan is hoping the Gravina Access Project that she disparaged as a "bridge to nowhere" may get new life.

The bridge would connect the city of Ketchikan with its airport and a huge area of land on Gravina Island ready to be developed, but the project fell victim to national politics in recent years.

First, it was dubbed the "bridge to nowhere" by anti-earmark activists, and then got more bad press after an interstate highway in Minnesota collapsed. That led to Congress lifting its earmarks for bridge construction.

Then came Palin, who told Alaskans she was stopping work on the Gravina Access Project because Alaska's delegation could not get enough earmarks to build it. Later, though, she told the Republican National Convention she had opposed it because it was funded by earmarks.

Ketchikan, however, has not given up despite the setbacks.

"We've had setbacks before, but we're kind of stubborn down in Ketchikan," said Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan.

Ketchikan has some influential leaders advocating on its behalf. Johansen is Majority Leader in the Republican-led House of Representatives, and the city's senator, Republican Bert Stedman of Sitka, is co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Despite Palin's cancellation of the project, a portion of the work went ahead anyway. Now, a new Environmental Impact Statement is underway, looking for a new method to improve access to Gravina Island. That may end in recommending a bridge, improved ferry service, or nothing at all.

Since the bridge is no longer getting bashed on a national stage, Ketchikan has renewed hope.

"Unfortunately, we had a governor who used one of the communities in the state as a ping pong ball for her own benefit," Stedman said. "I don't think Gov. Parnell is going to operate like that."

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is currently conducting a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, updating the original EIS completed in 2004.

Stedman said only a bridge would give Ketchikan the safe, dependable access to its airport and land that it needs, and he anticipated the supplemental EIS would agree.

"I still think Ketchikan needs a hard line to Gravina Island," he said.

A legislative audit concluded that money already spent on the bridge's approach was not "in the state's best interest" because it's not certain a bridge will ever be built. The audit, ironically, was requested by Stedman.

Stedman said the spending would be clearly useful if the bridge is eventually built at the southern end of Gravina Island, where the highway ends.

Johansen pointed out that the money spent on the highway approach was earmarked only for Gravina Access.

"If we didn't build that road the money would have been sent back to Congress," he said.

The supplemental EIS, which will look at the possible options, is expected to be completed this year, according to transportation officials.

"We're kind of regrouping, waiting for the state EIS process to finish and waiting for word from the current governor" on support for the project, Johansen said.

Stedman said that with the support of Alaska's governor, Gravina could be funded in the state budget process.

"That's a conversation that all the folks who want to be governor will have with the citizens of Ketchikan," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juenauempire.com.

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