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How a 'bridge to nowhere' became a road from nowhere to nowhere

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: July 8, 2016
  • Published November 16, 2015

JUNEAU -- The name "Bridge to Nowhere" still rankles in Ketchikan 10 years after congressional opponents of earmarks used it to attack federal money for the bridge to nearby Gravina Island and the city's airport.

But some of that money was still spent building a road to nowhere.

The Gravina Island Highway was to become part of what's officially known as the Gravina Access Project to better connect the city with Ketchikan International Airport.

Improved access was to have come from the controversial bridge, but with bridge plans officially abandoned recently, the state is now looking to better ferry service to improve access to the airport and help open Gravina Island to development.

In 2006, with the bridge in dispute and increasingly unlikely to ever be built, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski ordered work on the bridge project to begin with the construction of the highway south from the airport to the channel between Gravina Island and Revillagigedo Island, on which Ketchikan resides. The bridge would have used two high spans to connect the two big islands, as well as Pennock Island, in the channel between the two.

Instead, the road now ends, as it has since it was completed years ago, amid nothing but muskeg and scrub forest.

The 3.2-mile road was built at a cost of $28 million by Kiewit Pacific Co. of Anchorage. It features wide shoulders and sweeping curves to handle the large volume of traffic the road was expected to see one day.

"It was built to the standard to be able to have traffic moving at a decent clip," said state Department of Transportation spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow.

Further driving up costs were all the muskeg and peat that had to be removed and replaced with rock and gravel to get through the wetlands. Seven fish-bearing streams needed bridges. The road is not yet paved — that was expected to happen following bridge construction.

In addition to the road itself, another $11 million was spent building a 700-foot-long tunnel under the Ketchikan airport runway to get to the Gravina Island Highway from the airport terminal.

The whole bridge project was originally estimated to cost $230 million, including the associated roads. When DOT last month selected a ferry as its preliminary "preferred alternative" for the project, the bridge cost estimate had climbed to $450 million.

The decision to build the road before the bridge was blasted in 2010 by the Legislature's audit division, which said it was "not in the public's best interest given the lack of congressional financial support for the bridges and the significant increase in estimated cost."

Transportation officials at the time replied that the road was built with the support of Gov. Murkowski, the local community and some legislators. The project also had a history of federal appropriations showing support there as well, it said.

The audit also said the highway construction appeared to have been rushed to get it done before Murkowski left office, and that the department violated procurement rules by shortening bidding deadlines to get the construction awarded.

When new Gov. Sarah Palin came into office after having ousted Murkowski in the 2006 primary, she stopped the bridge project, saying it had lost congressional support. But she didn't attempt to void the already signed construction contracts for the approach road.

DOT says that the highway will still be useful to reach land on Gravina Island — even without the bridge.

It is already doing that, even if nothing has yet been built there, said DOT environmental planner John Barnett.

"It's getting more and more use all the time," he said. "There's some private land out there and some borough land, so it's being used for access to private lots and access to borough land, and it's also being used for some hunting, people going out sightseeing, berry picking, things like that. It's actually a nice road."

Ketchikan Gateway Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst said the borough owns some land adjacent to the Gravina Island Highway but hasn't tried to develop it and has no immediate plans to do so. But it still hopes to acquire more land there for future development, he said.

With about three-tenths of 1 percent of the borough's land privately owned and available for development, Ketchikan needs more land, he said.

But ferry access isn't likely to provide the kind of developable land Ketchikan needs, he said.

The borough shifted its support from the bridge to the ferry when it realized the bridge was never going to happen, Bockhorst said.

Following the construction of the island highway, the $28 million expenditure wound up being used by both bridge supporters to make the case for construction and bridge critics who called it a boondoggle.

DOT officials at the time said that if they didn't then continue with the bridge, they might be required to pay back to the federal government the $28 million it spent on the road. The critics called the road spending wasteful for the same reason.

DOT's Woodrow said that because the official "purpose and need" statement of the Gravina Access Project was not just to improve access to the airport but also to open developable land on Gravina Island, it is unlikely federal transportation officials will demand repayment.

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