Without earmark, Ketchikan bridge project going nowhere

Residents continue to seek funding for Gravina Island span

Posted: Sunday, August 19, 2007

It's been dubbed the "Bridge to Nowhere," thanks a federal earmark that made Alaska the subject of national ridicule and a symbol of federal pork-barrel spending.

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And now, two years of political fall out later, that's exactly where the bridge to connect Ketchikan to its airport on sparsely populated Gravina Island is going: Nowhere.

Republicans Sen. Ted Stevens and U.S. Rep. Don Young championed the project through Congress, securing more than $200 million in funds for the bridge between Ketchikan, on Revillagigedo Island, and Gravina Island.

Congress stripped the earmark - or stipulation - that the money be used for the airport, but still sent the money to the state for any use it deemed appropriate.

The state took about half for other projects around the state, and has set aside about $113 million for the Ketchikan bridge.

That has left the Ketchikan Gateway Borough of 13,000 residents looking for answers - and money - to build the bridge officials say is necessary for economic growth.

"Right now we are on hold," said Alaska's Department of Transportation Commissioner Leo von Scheben.

"We are not spending any money; we are not doing any analyses right now," he said. "We don't even know if more money is going to show up."

Stevens' office did not respond to request for an interview; Young's office said he was out of town and unreachable.

But Young and other Alaska leaders have long said this kind of funding is crucial to Alaska because it's a young state with little infrastructure in place. The argument is that the federal government built roads and bridges for years to help build other states, and Alaska should be treated no differently.

They also contend federal help is essential to Alaska because of it's remote, rugged and far-flung locations, most of which are well off the road system.

Those arguments aside, folks in Ketchikan are no longer counting on any further federal help with the bridge project, said borough Assemblyman Glen Thompson.

"They (Stevens and Young) have gone to bat for us as much as they can," Thompson said. "They put together a funding package that should have been enough."

That leaves locals making their case for a new, affordable bridge to the state DOT.

Of the $113 million set aside for the Ketchikan bridge, DOT officials said some already is earmarked for road work, right of way access and other site work.

Von Scheben, who wasn't with the state's DOT when the federal funding first was approved, says calling the project a "Bridge to Nowhere" is a misplaced characterization.

Access to Ketchikan, as with many towns in southeast Alaska, is limited to air and water transportation.

Every flight into Gravina Island requires a 15-minute ferry ride to reach the more densely populated Revillagigedo Island from the airport's site on Gravina Island.

"A lot times, bridges of this nature have the appearance of going nowhere," von Scheben said. "This bridge does go somewhere; it connects Ketchikan to an important airport."

But funding the project without anymore federal backing is easier said than done. Recent DOT cost estimates range from $224 million to nearly $400 million, depending on the scope of the project.

But the department's annual budget for all state projects is about $685 million, meaning Ketchikan officials are going to have to be patient and fiscally prudent in their design of a future bridge.

Backers say the bridge also can provide a potential economic development boost on Gravina Island, where the borough still has undeveloped land.

Ketchikan - Alaska's entry port for northbound cruise ships that bring more than 1 million visitors yearly - is literally out of room for expansion, state and local officials said.

The town is seven blocks wide and eight miles long, and is set against forest and mountains in the Tongass National Forest.

There's no place to go but across the channel to Gravina Island, which has population of 50 people, where the airport is located. It is relatively flat and prime real estate for development.

"Ketchikan is so tight with land right now that it can't grow at all without some influx of new land," von Scheben said. "It gives these people a chance to grow but you've got to give them access to the growth."

Longtime Gravina Island resident Mike Sallee, however, isn't convinced a bridge is necessary, calling the idea a "boondoggle."

"When you have bridge that is 200 some feet, that is going to be an obstruction, really," he said. "It's going to basically be in the way for air traffic and vessel traffic in a narrow channel."

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