17-mile road linking King Cove to Cold Bay not necessary

David Raskin

The proposed road from King Cove to Cold Bay would be extremely costly, damaging and totally unnecessary.

In 1998, Congress appropriated $37.5 million to solve King Cove's medical and transportation needs. American taxpayers paid for an ultramodern medical clinic with telemedicine capabilities, a $9 million state-of-the-art hovercraft, and $26 million for a 17-mile road and hovercraft ferry ports. This subsidy was almost $50,000 for each King Cove resident. However, Aleutians East Borough (AEB) recently disclosed that only one-third of the road was completed at a cost of more than $2 million per mile, and they have returned to Congress for more.

King Cove and Aleutians East Borough have spent in excess of $250,000 on a lobbying campaign headed by Abramoff-connected Steve Silver to persuade House and Senate committees to pass Don Young's HR 2801 and Lisa Murkowski's SB 1680. These bills would authorize a road through the heart of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness, threatening some of the most valuable wetlands in the world that are critical food sources for globally significant populations of migratory waterfowl.

They attempt to justify this costly and damaging project with the erroneous claim that King Cove needs access to the Cold Bay Airport to solve health and safety problems. In reality, these problems no longer exist.

Fast and reliable medevacs and transportation from King Cove to Cold Bay are currently provided by the Suna-X hovercraft ferry. Traveling up to 58 miles per hour, it can carry 47 passengers, over 20 tons of freight, cars, trucks and an ambulance and is able to operate in seas higher than 10 feet.

Since last year, the Suna-X has safely and efficiently completed at least 32 medevacs to Cold Bay that averaged only 20 minutes. Even the Aleutians East Borough mayor agrees that the hovercraft is a lifesaving machine and is doing what it is supposed to do.

In contrast, traversing a one-lane, 45-mile gravel road would require at least 1½ hours in favorable weather, and the road would be totally impassable during frequent icing, blowing snow and slides that are common on the proposed route. Severe winter storms and high waves would likely produce serious damage that would close it for long periods of time.

With Alaska transportation needs projected at $1.4 billion through 2030 and revenues estimated at only $700 million, the State cannot maintain its roads in the face of decreasing federal funding and continuing depletion of the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Alaska leads the nation in federal subsidies for transportation and is the only state that spends federal funds on local roads and maintenance.

The costs in remote Alaska will rise dramatically due to more frequent and severe storms, rapid erosion and melting permafrost from global warming. Last year, a UAA study concluded that by 2030 such effects may add $6.1 billion to Alaska's costs for public infrastructure.

Remote Alaska villagers travel by planes and boats to their communities, and most have fewer options than King Cove. But King Cove and AEB claim that maintaining the hovercraft is too costly, and they have lobbied intensely for an unnecessary road that would traverse avalanche slopes and the most sensitive wetlands in the Izembek Refuge. It would cost more than $2 million per mile and would require unacceptably high maintenance costs for the nearly impossible task of keeping it open during winter snowstorms and almost constant high winds. At Izembek, these problems will be exacerbated by global warming, rising seas and increasing coastal erosion.

Alaska simply cannot afford to build and maintain an unnecessary road to King Cove. It would be far wiser to avoid significant environmental damage and dramatically reduce taxpayer costs by subsidizing operation of the extremely successful hovercraft ferry link between King Cove and Cold Bay.

It makes no sense to punch a road though the ecological heart of one of the most significant wetlands in the world just 10 years after Congress appropriated substantial federal funds that have already provided the residents of King Cove the emergency health care and reliable transportation they requested.

Dr. David C. Raskin is president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. He lives in Homer.