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The controversial Ketchikan bridge project: a landmark, economic necessity or extravagance?

The proposed hard link across the Tongass Narrows from Ketchikan City and Ketchikan Gateway Borough, located on Revillagigedo Is land, to Ketchikan International Air port, located on Gravina Island, has spurred controversy around the world, literally. City and borough officials, engineers, and state and national figures have been interviewed by the likes of the BBC, the New York Times, the London Times and USA Today.

What's the big deal? It is just a bridge, or in its latest iteration, two bridges. It's a connection from the small Southeast Alaska community to its airport. While Ketchikan claims to be Alaska's fifth largest city, the combined borough and city population barely makes 14,000. But that small populace hosts more than 800,000 visitors each year: Nearly 57,000 of those visitors arrive and depart by air at Ketchikan International Airport. That is just the visitors. Alaska residents account for another 28,000 ticketed passengers in and out of Ketchikan. In 2003, Alaska Airlines booked just more than 193,000 enplanements/deplanements (total passengers coming and going), according to numbers provided to the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, says Robin Kinney, executive secretary for the KGB's Department of Transportation. That number will most likely exceed 200,000 this year.

Alaska Airlines schedules six flights a day nine months of the year. That is bumped to nine per day for the three summer months.

All those people pay four bucks and crowd onto a terry for a 10-minute shuttle to or from Ketchikan. In past years, the borough scheduled two ferries, one every 15 minutes during most of the day in the peak summer months. Only one ferry carries the load during the nine months of the rest of the year, leaving Ketchikan at :15 and :45 past the hour. It returns from the airport on the hour and half-hour. This year, partly due to the newer and bigger M/V Oral Freeman (named after Ketchikan's late state senator and the local lather of the Permanent Fund) and to save money, the ferry schedule never increased during the tourist months; but passenger count did.


Ketchikan did not have a land based airport until June 1973 when the present facility was opened. Ever since then, the idea of a bridge to cross the Tongass Narrows has been debated. City council and borough assembly members and mayors have won and lost elections based on their stand regarding the bridge. The concept is commonly referred to as a hard link because the studies have included a tunnel under the Narrows, one-bridge, and two-bridge adaptations.

Arguments in favor of building the hard link range from emergency access, handicap accessibility, scheduling, and to issues of property and economic development. The cons cite possible waterway bottlenecks, float plane hindrances, the establishment of a landmark out of character tot the In side Passage, to the shear cost of the project. Tia Wilhelm addressed her opposition in a letter to the local community Web site, "I'm also concerned about the bankrupt borough being saddled with the costs of maintaining a span only 20 feet shorter than the Golden Gate Bridge."

The latest estimated price tag: more than $230 million.


The Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Ketchikan City and the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce, among others, picked up the bridge gauntlet again about 10 years ago, soliciting then Gov. Tony Knowles and the Alaska Department Of Transportation to support funding and construction of a bridge between Revilla Island and Gravina Island. State Rep. Don Young's support was also sought. In 1998, the Transportation Equity Action (TEA)-221 set aside $20.4 million for environmental, engineering and impact studies related to the construction of the Gravina Access Project: "a bridge joining the Island of Gravina to the community of Ketchikan on Revilla Island." Mayor Mike Salazar said about $7 million of those monies has been spent. More recent studies have ruled out the tunnel concept as too costly.

Two separate concepts for the bridge survived until earlier this summer. In August, the Alaska Department of Transportation released a final environmental study recommending building two bridges. One bridge will span from Ketchikan to Pennock Island (in the center of the Narrows) and a second spanning from Pennock to Gravina. ADOT had been working on the study for five years.

The goal of the Gravina Access Project is to provide better transportation from Ketchikan to Gravina, and to provide access to developable land and recreation on Gravina Island, says Mark Dalton, a project manager for consultant HDR Alaska.

The first bridge will cross the seven-tenths-of-a mile wide East Channel. In order to maintain a vertical navigation clearance of 200 feet, the bridge will be about 250 feet high. The second bridge will be 160 feet high and span the half mile-wide West Channel from Pennock to Gravina.

Perpendicular to the channel, the design is to allow vessel traffic in the Tongass Narrows to continue as it does today.

The study says the drive to the air port would take only 13 minutes. Ac cording to the study, it takes 27 minutes using the existing ferry. Those numbers don't just exactly add up, given that the ferry leaves one side of the channel docks, unloads, and loads and returns just 15 minutes later.

ADOT officials say the bridge(s) will have no toll. The borough now charges $4 whether you ride the ferry or take the water taxi. They offer no luggage handling capabilities and a car on the ferry is another $10. Except for pedestrian traffic, getting to the airport via the bridge will be cheaper, if not faster.

Borough Mayor Salazar says the borough owns a lot of land on Gravina that can be accessed for development. Gravina is sparsely populated and has almost no infrastructure. There is a substantial amount of private land that, with addition roads, will be accessible. Pacific Log and Lumber sawmill on Gravina is extending a road from its facility to the airport, planning the day its site will be accessible via the bridge.


Ketchikan's economy has been in the doldrums ever since the pulp mill closed in 1997. Salazar says the area has lost more than 1,000 jobs since then. School enrollment is down 500, according to Dick Coose, a candidate for borough assembly. Ketchikan's shopping center is renting most of its space to government and private offices, rather than retailers. While a new Wal-Mart has more than replaced the slumping sales tax revenues, most new jobs in Ketchikan do not come with the paycheck that pulp mill workers were accustomed to.

Building the monolith will likely involve 470 workers, according to the state's study. A project of this magnitude will last more than five years. The area hasn't seen that kind of a work force, or the payroll that will come with it, since the pulp mill. If the bridge is built, Ketchikan will again boom. At least for as long as the construction lasts.


Rep. Don Young (R-AK) is no stranger to criticism and some say his uncanny ability to funnel money into Alaska's coffers keeps him in office. Through the years, the funding necessary for the Ketchikan bridge has posed a challenge. While Young's position as chairman of the House Transportation Committee has enabled him to keep alive the bridge and other projects throughout the state, his favored transportation bill this year was essentially tabled as Congress in early October passed an eight-month extension of current federal highway funding. Young's proposed $299 billion federal bill was designed to fund the nation's highways and mass transit for the next six years. Included within it: $175 million for the Gravina bridge project.

While special council to Congressman Young, Mark Zachares, initially hoped to see the proposed bill on the president's desk before the November election, the extension likely means an extended fight is ahead for Alaska's transportation projects.

It's not the first time Alaska transportation has faced controversy. In June, Rep. Young received the Golden Fleece award from the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. The group called it the $190 Million Bridge to Nowhere. In a news release, the organization suggests, "This bridge is purportedly meant to replace ferry boats, which adequately handle passenger traffic between the islands.... The real motive behind this boondoggle is to pave the way for well-connected timber interest to clear the island of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of old-growth forests."

In response, Steve Hansen, spokes man for the House Transportation Committee, says, "Opponents of the bill have made it the poster child of why people should oppose the bill, but they have completely misrepresented it. Chairman Young is still committed to the Gravina bridge."

Despite the uncertainty of the much anticipated federal transportation dollars, all activity does not stop with regard to the bridge. Other funding is available to help planners continue to move forward in tiny steps: including local matching funds, state and other federal sources.

Should Young's bill eventually not pass muster among his legislative peers, half a billion dollars earmarked for big Alaska projects, including the hard link between Ketchikan and its airport, will have to wait for the next big influx of federal dollars.
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Title Annotation:Special section: building Alaska
Author:Colby, Kent L.
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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