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Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere is back with a smaller price tag

Pat Forgey
By the time former Gov. Sarah Palin cancelled the bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, it was already the focus of national criticism for its price and how few Alaskans it would serve. Jill Burke photo

The "Bridge to Nowhere" that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin once tried to kill is back, with a new economic study and a much more modest cost.

More than four years in the making, the new supplemental environmental impact statement released Friday compares two Ketchikan bridge options and five ferry options. Four of those ferry options offer improved service and different routes, while the fifth is the legally required "no action" option, which in this case means continued use of the existing ferry.

Ketchikan bridge advocates hope the plan will finally get the city linked to its airport on neighboring Gravina Island, while at the same time opening up land for development.

"Right now, we're operating with a ferry system that in the long term is markedly more expensive in terms of the life cycle than any of the bridge options," said Dan Bockhorst, manager of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough.

Stevens threatened to resign over bridge

A bridge, though, would be more expensive up front than any of the ferry options.

When Palin canceled the bridge project in 2007, it was already the focus of national criticism for its cost and the small population it would serve. Alaska's U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens went to the mat for the project, even threatening to resign if funding was pulled.

In the face of national mockery and resentment over the amount of money coming to Alaska, Palin canceled the project, calling it too expensive and unlikely to be fully funded, at least not without damaging other Alaska projects.

But in Ketchikan, the "Bridge to Nowhere" moniker still rankles.

"We don't consider our community 'Nowhere,'" Bockhorst said.

The new bridge proposals made public Friday for what is officially called the "Gravina Access Project" are considerably less expensive than the last proposal.

A single-span bridge to Gravina Island would cost $223 million, while an alternative crossing to Pennock Island and continuing on to Gravina Island, would cost $276 million. The up-front construction costs for each of the ferry improvement projects would cost less than $100 million each.

Last bridge plan: $450 million

Bridge costs are driven up by the fact that Tongass Narrows, between Ketchikan and Gravina Island, is part of the Inside Passage, the route used by Alaska state ferries and cruise ships.

Those cost estimates compare to the last bridge plan, estimated to have cost $450 million in current dollars. At the time, Palin called that plan "grandiose," according to the Ketchikan Daily News.  

Department of Transportation Project Manager Jim Lowell said the draft environmental impact statement lays out possible options, but not how the final project would be funded. About $80 million is already in hand from earlier earmarked appropriations, he said.

"That's federal money, but the total funding package at this point is yet uncertain," Powell said.

It could wind up with contributions from the federal government, the Alaska Legislature, or even a local match. "Who knows?" he said.

Just $391 million over 75 years

The borough's Bockhorst said he knows that's going to be tough, because federal money will be needed under any scenario. "Obviously, the federal government is struggling, facing its own financial difficulties," he said. "It's going to be a challenge, no doubt."

That's why Bockhorst is focusing attention on total lifecycle cost rather than the up front cost.

The single-span option would cost $391 million over 75 years, with the two-span option costing $576 million. The earlier "grandiose" version is not among the current options.

Each of those is cheaper than any of the ferry options when life-cycle cost is included, due to higher operating cost of the ferries. The improved ferry service options would each cost more than a billion dollars, and even the "no action" option could cost $929 million over the next 75 years, though passenger charges would reduce that cost to $590 million.

The Department of Transportation's 45-day public comment period on the Gravina Access Project ends Aug. 13.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com