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Alaska 'bridge to nowhere' plan is no more as state chooses ferry for Ketchikan

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 22, 2015

JUNEAU -- The state of Alaska has decided that the best way to connect the city of Ketchikan with its airport on Gravina Island is a ferry, not the bridge the community had originally wanted and much of the nation mocked.

Ketchikan leaders are reviewing the DOT shuttle ferry proposal, and asking for more.

The bridge's days have been numbered since it was dubbed "The Bridge to Nowhere" a decade ago, and the project and the city became a bi-partisan punching bag in the fight against federal pork and the earmarks members of Congress used to fund such projects.

The conservative Heritage Foundation called it a "national embarrassment."

Prominent Republicans such as Sen. John McCain opposed the bridge and the earmark process used to win funding for it, and new Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stopped the project in 2007 after taking office. Later, after being named as McCain's vice-president running mate, Palin got wild cheers at the Republican National Convention when she told Congress, "Thanks, but no thanks," for the bridge money.

She also said that if Alaska needed a bridge there, it would pay for it itself.

But despite all that, the bridge wasn't a completely dead idea and Ketchikan still needed a better way to get to its airport and the rest of Gravina Island than its small ferry.

In 2013 state transportation planners came back with a new slate of options, including improved ferry service and two bridge options scaled down from earlier cost estimates of $450 million.

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough, which operates the busy airport and the ferry that serves it, considered the options, looked at the political history, and endorsed a more realistic ferry option.

The improvements include a new 60-passenger waiting facility, shuttle vans, a freight dock and reconstruction of existing docks and ramps.

Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, said what Ketchikan really needs is a bridge, which is locally called a "hard link," but still welcomed DOT's Thursday ferry proposal after eight years of study.

"There's been a community consensus realization as far back as the Palin administration that we weren't going to get a hard link," he said.

Transportation Commissioner Mark Luiken visited Ketchikan Thursday to present the latest proposal. The effort won praise from borough officials, but borough manager Dan Bockhorst said the ferry proposal could be better.

"We presented an alternative proposal that we think is much more realistic and reasonable in terms of providing enhanced service to Gravina Island," he said.

The DOT's proposal is estimated to cost $23 million, but total federal appropriations for Gravina Access have come to more than $364 million, much of which was spent on other Alaska transportation needs after the earmarks were lifted, Bockhorst said.

Thursday, the borough presented Luiken with a list of other ferry-related projects to improve service. One was for an $18 million satellite airport terminal which would allow bags to be checked on Ketchikan's Revillagigedo Island, rather than at the main Ketchikan International Airport on Gravina Island.

"You can imagine the difficulty when we've got elderly and infirm individuals toting luggage and whatnot up and down the ramps (to the ferries) especially when the tides are lower, and it becomes a challenge especially given our weather sometimes," he said.

Bockhorst also said the borough may need help with construction of new ferries as the existing ferries age, and would like money set aside for that as well. Replacing the MV Oral Freeman is estimated to cost $21.5 million, he said.

Bockhorst said Luiken expressed a willingness to look at the borough's requests.

DOT spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said the state has $87.8 million in federal money available. Some state match may be required, but some of the match requirement may already be met, he said.

Woodrow said he expects a final Environmental Impact Statement to be completed in 2016, including time needed to review the new requests. The final document will then be presented to the Federal Highway Administration for its approval to spend federal money.

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