State to present Ketchikan with less expensive Gravina bridge plans

DOT decides to allot $133 million to project instead of $328 million

Posted: Thursday, August 31, 2006

KETCHIKAN - Plans for a multimillion dollar bridge that became a symbol of misdirected federal largesse may have to be tweaked because the state cannot fund the current design, officials said.

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The proposed project would link Ketchikan to the airport on sparsely populated Gravina Island. It would cost about $328 million, but the state has decided to allot it $133 million, according to Malcolm Menzies, who directs the state's southeast region for the Department of Transportation.

The department plans to present Ketchikan with two alternatives that it says will cost millions of dollars less than the original plan. One is a 200-foot-high, single-span bridge near the airport on Gravina Island. The other is an underwater tube crossing at Peninsula Point.

Menzies said both projects appear to be in the $200 million to $280 million price range.

"They're both what we consider to be doable projects," he said.

Congress had originally earmarked $233 million for the Gravina Island span in 2005, but dropped a mandate that it be used for the bridge after critics used the allocation as a prime example of pork-barrel politics. The span was dubbed the "Bridge to Nowhere" by some Congressional watchdog groups.

Now Alaska is to receive nearly the same amount of overall funding with the stipulation that the state would decide how to spend it. The state has opted to give part of the federal funds to the Gravina bridge and the rest to other projects statewide.

Alaska's Legislature appropriated almost $10 million in state general funds for the project this year. That amount, in addition to some earlier funding, brings the total amount available to about $133 million, according to the state.

The project has been on hold since earlier this year when the state realized it did not have enough money for the bridge, according to Menzies.

"We were expecting all the funding for Gravina Access," Menzies said. "That did not happen."

DOT budget staff say they believe the state could obtain between $175 million and $250 million within the next few years through its normal funding process, said Menzies.

But the department has also warned that the full funding could elude the project indefinitely.

"Project shareholders need to recognize and accept the reality that the preferred alternative F1 will likely never be fully funded given the $328 million project cost," according to a state handout at a Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce meeting on Aug. 23.

Community leaders, including state Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, believe the state could have given the Gravina project a much larger part of the $233 million in federal transportation funding.

"I firmly believe that they have no intention at all of building a bridge of more than $300 million," Stedman, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said Tuesday. "Frankly, I don't think the district was treated fairly."

Stedman said he believes that Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who championed the Gravina bridge and Knik Arm span in Anchorage as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, supports the original bridge plan.

"Unless there's been a change in Washington, D.C., that I'm unaware of ... Don Young is pursuing the construction of the preferred alternative - and so am I," Stedman said. "Until the community tells me otherwise, that's the road I'm going to go down."

DOT officials plan to discuss project options with the Ketchikan municipal governments and residents in September.

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