Bridge seen as lifeline for foundering Alaska village

Project would cut South Naknek's transportation costs

Posted: Monday, June 20, 2005

Every morning, South Nak-nek's 14 schoolchildren eat breakfast, kiss their parents goodbye and head to the airport for the daily flight, their school bus in the sky.

It's a two-minute air taxi ride across the Naknek River to the north shore, where a bus waits to take them to their first class.

When the final bell rings, the South Naknek students head back to the airport. Those who stick around for basketball practice or to visit with friends arrange to catch a later flight.

The quirky commute has been a way of life for older South Naknek students since the 1960s. Last year, they were joined by the younger students when the elementary school's enrollment dropped below 10 and the school closed down.

Eva Nielsen-King hates the flights. The 38-year-old mother of four hates having to worry about her kids' safety during bad weather and the monthly $300 bill for after-school flights.

"I feel like I have no children a lot of the time because they have to stay over so many nights," she said. "I feel like I'm an orphan."

About five years ago, when the village gave its support to building a bridge across the Naknek River, Nielsen-King was against the idea. Then, she said a bridge connecting South Naknek with Naknek and King Salmon would change the way of life of the Aleut Native village, about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage. Hunters already ride across the ice trail when the river freezes and they litter, get drunk and waste the animals needed for subsistence, she said. She thought year-round access would make it worse.

But since then, she's watched the commercial fishing industry go into a tailspin and South Naknek's population shrink from 130 to about 88. That's changed her mind about the bridge, along with anyone else who had doubts.

"I wish to God one would appear because our village is failing," she said.

Restaurants and other services are on the north side of the river. South Naknek residents flew across the river about 4,400 times in 2003, according to the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

For the times South Naknek residents don't feel like traveling across the river for dinner, they can order a pizza from D&D Restaurant for delivery. A large pizza with all the toppings costs $28. Added to that is the $6 cab ride for the pizza to get to the airport. If King Air already has a flight scheduled, it will transport the pizza for free. If not, it costs another $40, the same as flying a person. Total cost of a large pizza for South Naknek: $74. Half-hour delivery is not guaranteed.

A bridge linking the two towns and King Salmon, about 15 miles from Naknek, would save hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, according to a recent study by the Department of Transportation.

The state's study, released in May, concludes that the preferred plan would be to build a bridge and shut down one of the three state-run airports in the three towns.

It would take six to eight years to conduct an environmental impact study and secure the $26 million to $40 million it would cost to build a 2,300-foot bridge and a 14,500-foot road leading to it, the study said. The bridge wouldn't be open for traffic until 2014 at the earliest.

Included in a giant U.S. House of Representatives transportation bill is $3 million to start the Naknek project. The Naknek startup money is small compared to some of the other Alaska bridge projects in the bill, such as $200 million for the Knik Arm crossing in Anchorage and $125 million for a Gravina Island bridge in Ketchikan.

On the committee sits all three of Alaska's Republican congressional delegates. So no matter what gets cut in the conference committee process, the Alaska projects "are pretty safe," said Grant Thompson, Young's spokesman.

Keith Ashdown, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, agrees.

"Whatever Alaska wants, Alaska is going to get," he said.

Like the Gravina project, he sees a $40 million federal highway project that would serve just 1,100 people as a prime example of federal pork.

"It's just a boneheaded, shortsighted idea," Ashdown said.

Bristol Bay Borough Manager Fred Pike said a bridge is the best solution to the problems of the village and the students. A ferry can't be relied upon because of the 18-foot tidal shifts every day that leave sandbars as obstacles to the north shore.

Nielsen-King said the link would save future parents the worry of their children flying in the harsh Alaska winter weather.

She looks at the other transportation proposals, like Knik Arm and Gravina, and says Naknek is more worthy.

"Gee whiz, how can they even think of spending money that isn't necessary, when there is a community that really needs a bridge?" she said.

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