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State ends planning for bridge to Gravina Island (9/22/07)

JUNEAU - Some called it a bridge to the future. Others called it the bridge to nowhere.

The bridge is going nowhere.

On Friday, the state abandoned the controversial project in Ketchikan that became a national symbol of federal pork-barrel spending.

It closes a chapter that has brought the state reams of ridicule, but it also leaves open wounds in a community that fought for decades to get federal help.

"We went through political hot water -- tons of it -- and not just nationally but internationally, " said Ketchikan-Gateway Borough Mayor Joe Williams. "We have nothing to show for it."

The $398 million bridge would have connected Ketchikan to its airport on a sparsely populated Gravina Island.

Gov. Sarah Palin directed the state Department of Transportation to find the most "fiscally responsible" alternative for access to the airport.

Without federal funding, the state cannot afford a bridge, so the best option would be to upgrade the current ferry system, she said.

Local officials called the decision premature, saying it came without warning.

"For somebody who touts process and transparency in getting projects done, I'm disappointed and taken aback, " said state Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan.

"This is contrary to about every statement she has ever made, " he said. "We worked 30 years to get funding for this priority project."


Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and U.S. Rep. Don Young championed the project through Congress two years ago. They secured more than $200 million in funds for the bridge.

Under mounting political pressure over pork projects, Congress stripped the requirement that the money be used for the bridge project, letting the state spend it for any appropriate transportation need.

Stevens' spokesman, Aaron Saunders, said Friday that "the senator looks forward to hearing how the state proposes to use these funds that he and the delegation worked so hard to secure."

A spokeswoman from Young's office said he would have no comment.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also weighed in:

"The community of Ketchikan has made safe and reliable access to the airport a priority for over 30 years. When the state of Alaska requested resources to build a bridge, the congressional delegation worked hard to secure funding. It is unfortunate for the people of Ketchikan that the state has chosen to reprioritize its support of this project."

The Gravina bridge funding has been publicized nationally as an example of wasteful spending by Congress.

Just last month, presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., weighed in, saying pet projects could have played a role in a Minnesota bridge collapse that killed 13 people.

"Maybe if we had done it right, maybe some of that money would have gone to inspect those bridges and other bridges around the country, " McCain told a group of people in a town-hall style meeting in Ankeny, Iowa.

"Maybe the 200,000 people who cross that bridge every day would have been safer than spending $233 million of your tax dollars on a bridge in Alaska to an island with 50 people on it."


Ketchikan-Gateway Borough Assemblyman Mike Painter said the label "bridge to nowhere, " is misplaced.

"The fact is, that's our international airport across the channel, " Painter said. "Somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 people go back and forth annually to the airport."

On Friday, Palin said the Gravina project was $329 million short of getting fully funded.

"The federal government is less and less interested in continuing to fund these projects, she said. "It can't be a state priority for DOT when we have much-needed road and bridge improvements. Our intention is to work with the community to find a sensible and efficient shuttle connection, a better ferry service."

Every flight into Gravina Island requires a 15-minute ferry ride from where most people in Ketchikan live.

The town -- seven blocks wide and eight miles long -- has little room to grow. Local leaders have said access to Gravina Island also is needed to grow the town and the economy.

So with the bridge project shelved, DOT will prepare a list of projects across the state where the remaining $36 million in federal funds set aside for Gravina could be used.

Daily News staff and wire reports