JUNEAU -- OK, this is awkward. It now looks as if former Gov. Sarah Palin was right all along about the "Bridge to Nowhere," when in 2007 she canceled the proposed $400 million project to link Ketchikan with its airport on nearby Gravina Island, saying it was too expensive.
Both the City of Ketchikan and the Ketchikan Gateway Borough now say that the best way to improve access to the airport is by improved ferry service. The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is now studying both ferry and bridge options as part of the Gravina Access Project. Public comment on the draft environmental impact statement ends Tuesday.
Both the city, at one end of possible Gravina links, and the borough, which runs the airport and governs the land on the Gravina side of the link, have decided better ferry service, one of the options under consideration, is the way to go. The option both entities chose to support, dubbed G-4, would involve new ferries and terminals at a cost of $62 million, much less than the $276 million cost of the priciest bridge option.
All the options under consideration are cheaper than the grandiose bridge plan that Palin canceled in 2007.
Ketchikan City Council member Sam Bergeron called it "laughable" to spend $250-300 million on the bridge, given existing financial constraints and other needs. "This project needs to be scaled back from a bridge to improved ferry service to be mindful of the economic times we are in," said Bergeron, formerly a bridge supporter.
The new support for the ferry option doesn't mean that a bridge isn't desired, just that obtaining funding is not realistic, said supporters of option G-4.
That's essentially what then-Gov. Palin said in 2007 when she canceled the bridge option and told the Department of Transportation to look for more cost-effective ways to improve connections to Gravina Island. She had called the earlier plan "grandiose" on a campaign trip before being elected governor, according to the Ketchikan Daily News.
Ketchikan had sought the bridge for more than a decade, since the days when Sens. Ted Stevens, Frank Murkowski, and Rep. Don Young were all in positions of power in Washington, D.C., and able to bring home the hundreds of millions the bridge would have cost.
Times in the nation's capital changed, however, and what was known in Alaska as the Gravina Access Project got dubbed the "Bridge to Nowhere" by critics of pork-barrel spending and federal earmarks. Sen. John McCain rose to prominence in the Republican Party as new concerns about the federal government spending took hold nationally. When a Minnesota freeway bridge collapse killed 13 people, McCain linked it to spending decisions such as providing "$233 million of your tax dollars on a bridge in Alaska to an island with 50 people on it."
Congress stripped $175 million in earmarks from the project, but let Alaska keep the money for other projects. Palin, saying that obtaining more funding wasn't realistic, canceled the bridge project.
That action left local officials furious, as much for being left out of the decision making and being taken by surprise by the press release announcing the cancellation as for the loss of the project. "I am livid," said then-Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, a fellow Republican whom Palin had excluded from the process.
A year later, Palin rubbed salt in Ketchikan's wounds when she accepted the Republican nomination for vice president alongside presidential nominee Sen. John McCain and bragged about canceling the "Bridge to Nowhere."
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