Is bridge's fate connected to road?

Leaders wonder how Palin's decision to cancel Gravina span will affect Juneau Access Project

Posted: Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Juneau leaders are trying to figure out if Gov. Sarah Palin's decision to cancel Ketchikan's nationally controversial "bridge to nowhere" is going to help or hurt construction of the Juneau access road.

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The proposed bridge connecting Ketchikan to its airport on Gravina Island got caught in the crossfire of a national debate over congressional "earmarks," the process by which powerful politicians, such as Alaska's Republican Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, direct funding for select projects in the federal budget.

In September, Palin ended work on the Gravina project, acknowledging that the state no longer had a way to pay for a project that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Click here to read the original announcement of Gov. Sarah Palin's cancellation of the Gravina Bridge project.

Alaska is short $329 million of the $398 million needed to build the bridge, Palin said.

"It's clear that Congress has little interest in spending any more money on a bridge between Ketchikan and Gravina Island," Palin said.

So what does the cancellation of Gravina mean for Juneau?

"I haven't the slightest idea," Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said.

The Juneau Access Project, a road up Lynn Canal to a ferry terminal at the Katzehin River, about 18 miles south of Skagway, has been a source of contention in Juneau for years.

The cancellation of the Gravina Bridge project may mean there won't be money for Juneau either, or it may free money to begin work on the road north.

The Gravina project was one of three mega-projects the state has been considering, along with the Juneau Access Project and the Knik Arm Bridge near Anchorage.

Citizens Pro-Road, a Juneau group advocating for the highway, can't figure out what the Gravina decision means for Juneau either, said Dick Knapp, the group's president.

"I can't answer that question," he said. "I'm not being coy. I just don't know."

The decision to stop work on the Gravina project will free up $36 million in federal funds to be spent on other projects. That money isn't necessarily going to be spent in Southeast Alaska, but Palin's announcement suggested that it might be tied to the ferry system.

"We desperately need to construct new roads in this state, including in Southeast Alaska, where skyrocketing costs for the Alaska Marine Highway System present an impediment to the state's budget and the region's economy," said Leo Von Scheben, commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, in Palin's press release announcing the Gravina decision.

Knapp said the state has more than $80 million on hand for the Juneau road, and would like to see that money used to get work started when permits become available.

"I understand there is enough money in the budget now to build the first part of the road," Knapp said.

State highway officials say they think they are a few weeks to a few months away from receiving a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the road, but have thought that since last spring.

"We think it would be a mistake for a governor to allow the Juneau road-ferry combination project to go forward," said highway opponent Lois Epstein of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project.

The amount of money freed up in Ketchikan, even if spent entirely in Juneau, would still leave the Juneau Access Project well short of what it would need to build the road.

"The state doesn't have that kind of money," she said.

It's not clear what the total cost of the project will be, all sides agree.

The state's most recent cost estimate is $260 million, but that estimate has not been updated, said Jeff Ottesen, director of the Division of Program Development for DOT.

Knapp said he's been using an estimate of $300 million, based on overall inflation, with Epstein saying it is likely far higher than that.

Ottesen said it was right to expect the new cost estimate to be millions of dollars more, but he didn't know by how much.

"We know the price is going up," he said. "It's going up for everything."

The cancellation of the Gravina project may also be a recognition that the project had become too politically risky to try to fund in Washington, D.C., these days.

The Ketchikan project wasn't a statewide priority, Ottesen said, and relied on the powerful Alaska delegation to jump it ahead of other projects elsewhere in the nation.

A combination of Hurricane Katrina and the loss of power by Alaska's all-Republican delegation in a newly Democratic Congress may make funding too difficult, Epstein said.

Road proponent Rich Poor said the state needed to at least start the road while some money was available.

"I know we're not going to have as much (federal) money as we used to have, but there is money available for the first couple sections of road," he said. "We need to go forward with those when we can."

• Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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