JUNEAU, Alaska — A project once held up as an example of government waste and derisively labeled a “bridge to nowhere” is getting another look by the state of Alaska.
The state recently proposed six “build” alternatives to improve access between the Southeast Alaska community of Ketchikan and Gravina Island, where the Ketchikan International Airport is located. The alternatives include two bridge and four ferry options; there also is a no-action alternative. Comments are being taken through Aug. 13, with a goal of reaching a decision by next spring.
Still unknown is where the money to build a project might come from. Alaska Department of Transportation spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said that will be sorted through later.
About $80 million remains from a $220 million federal earmark in 2005 for planning, design and construction, he said. Congress redirected much of that earmark, with money ultimately put toward other state projects after the bridge became an object of national ridicule.
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In 2007, with the project estimated at nearly $400 million, then-Gov. Sarah Palin directed the department to look at less expensive alternatives. As John McCain’s running mate in 2008 she said she had told Congress “thanks but no thanks” on the bridge, though the state still got money and she had supported the project when she ran for governor. When she returned to Alaska after the 2008 national campaign, she defended her use of the phrase “bridge to nowhere” in Ketchikan, saying it was widely known.
The community has pushed for increased access for decades, since the airport was built, and there’s frustration among some local leaders — who see the project as critical to growth — that the process isn’t farther along.
The borough has a population of about 14,000 people, a decent size by Alaska standards. Like most Alaska communities, it’s not connected to a road system and is accessible only by air or water. It’s also almost entirely federal lands, leaving little room for development or additional housing as the region hopes to capitalize on a local shipyard expansion and potential mine projects, Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor Dave Kiffer said.
He said significant land is available to build on the roughly 100-square-mile Gravina Island, which has about 75 full-time residents, many of whom, he said, like living off the grid. Gravina hasn’t been developed further because people are worried about things like being stuck in an emergency and don’t want to be dependent on small boats during the frequent storms in the Tongass Narrows, he said.
Borough-operated ferries currently shuttle vehicles and passengers from Revillagigedo Island, home to the communities of Ketchikan and Saxman, across the narrows to Gravina, running about 16 hours a day during the summer fishing and tourist season and less in winter, he said.
The state in 2008 completed a 3.2-mile road on Gravina Island that was connected to the project stalled by Palin. The department said construction was in the works before her announcement and federal funding remained tied to that piece of the project.
The department began to re-examine the project that same year, and recently came out with its draft supplemental report.
The bridge is far from the only project of its kind in Alaska.
Lois Epstein, an engineer who works on Arctic transportation issues for The Wilderness Society, said the major question is whether the state can afford any of these in addition to all the energy projects it’s pursuing, including major dam and gas pipeline projects.
Kiffer said local officials expect the bridge options to be deemed too expensive by the state and operation costs for enhanced ferry options to fall on local residents.
Ketchikan Mayor Lew Williams is glad the state is moving ahead on Gravina, but worries, too, about the funding and progress. He said his community is “sort of trapped” on Revillagigedo Island.
“If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” he said.