Ketchikan lawmaker seeks bond for bridge

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Ketchikan's nationally derided "bridge to nowhere" project might be on the road to new life in the state Capitol.

Ketchikan Republican Rep. Kyle Johansen, who co-chairs the House Transportation Committee, is pushing legislation directing the state to sell $45 million in bonds to partially pay for a high bridge across the Tongass Narrows waterway to Gravina Island.

Few people live on the island, but it's home to Ketchikan's airport, which is served by boat.

In recent years, budget earmarks the Alaska congressional delegation lined up to pay for the Ketchikan bridge as well as the Knik Arm bridge in Anchorage became symbols of government waste and spawned a nickname that stuck like tar - "bridges to nowhere."

Gov. Sarah Palin last year pulled state support for the Ketchikan bridge, saying residents deserve a better way to reach their airport but "the $398 million bridge is not the answer."

Johansen said Friday if people thought Ketchikan had given up on the idea because of some jeering publicity, they were mistaken.

"This is an easy target because of the national attention," he said. "It's easy to say, 'Oh, a bridge to nowhere, ha ha ha.'

"The insulting nature of that comment, it really does bother me. We're not going to stop fighting for what our community's No. 1 priority has been for 30 years."

Johansen is seeking part of the money for the bridge in House Bill 314, which would ask Alaskans to vote on whether to issue $170 million in bonds to pay for transportation projects statewide.

Other projects include $10 million for Anchorage's seaport expansion, $24.1 million for traffic congestion relief under an initiative called Connect Anchorage, and $8.9 million to build a road to a proposed new visitors center on the southeast flank of Denali National Park.

Ketchikan has been chasing the bridge since the local airport was built on Gravina Island in the 1970s, Johansen said. The vision was - and still is - that the island has land where Ketchikan can expand with homes and industry, he said. Otherwise, the town is hemmed in by mountains and national forest property.

The bridge over the east channel of Tongass Narrows would be imposing at 3,400 feet long and 200 feet tall - high enough to allow huge cruise ships calling on Ketchikan to pass underneath.

Johansen said he limited his bridge bond request to $45 million to avoid turning off other House members.

"I just figured $45 million would not be too greedy, but enough that might help," Johansen said. The goal is to cobble together enough money from various sources to build the bridge, he said.

HB 314 currently is awaiting action in the House Finance Committee, with less than nine days left in the legislative session.

Johansen has friends on the other side of the Capitol in the Senate.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, is co-chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and manager of the capital budget, which pays for many roads and other building projects across the state.

Stedman doesn't want to stop at $45 million.

"I think the number should be $100 million," he said.

And because the state is blessed with billions of dollars in surplus oil revenue, Stedman said, it can use cash instead of bonds to pay for important projects such as the Ketchikan span.

On a separate track, Stedman has requested a legislative audit into what the Alaska Department of Transportation has done with $350 million he said the federal and state governments have authorized for the Gravina project.

At one time, the bridge was one of the state's highest building priorities with construction to be finished by 2010, Stedman said.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Kevin Meyer, co-chair of the House Finance Committee, said he understands how important the bridge is to Ketchikan.

The committee considered HB 314 on Friday but didn't take a vote.

Daydreamers could look out the fifth-floor committee room window and see cars, trucks and school buses crossing the bridge over Gastineau Channel connecting Juneau to Douglas Island, where a thriving bedroom community has developed over the years, as well as a ski resort.

Johansen likely will have trouble keeping the bridge bonds in HB 314.

Including the Ketchikan bridge in the bill might cause voters to reject a bond package for many good projects around the state, Meyer said. So he said he's inclined to draft a new version of HB 314 leaving the Gravina bonds out.

"The dilemma," he said, is the bill will move to Stedman's committee once the House finishes with it.

The governor can't use her line-item veto power to cut a particular project out of a bond bill.

When asked for comment Friday on HB 314, Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow provided this statement: "Gov. Palin is on record for supporting improved access to Gravina Island. The Department of Transportation is looking at options to develop a new preferred alternative to the bridge project that was cancelled last year."

Johansen said he's hopeful of winning some sort of financing for the bridge this session.

"You can't get from Anchorage to Eagle River without crossing a bridge," he said. "That's just a plain fact."



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