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Originally published September 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 22, 2007 at 3:04 PM

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Alaska abandons controversial Ketchikan bridge project

Some called it a bridge to the future. Others called it the bridge to nowhere. The bridge is going nowhere. On Friday, the state of Alaska...

The Associated Press

JUNEAU, Alaska — Some called it a bridge to the future. Others called it the bridge to nowhere.

The bridge is going nowhere.

On Friday, the state of Alaska officially abandoned the controversial project in Ketchikan that became a national symbol of federal pork-barrel spending.

It closes a chapter that has brought the state reams of ridicule, but it also leaves open wounds in a community that fought for decades to get federal help.

"We went through political hot water — tons of it — and not just nationally but internationally," said Ketchikan-Gateway Borough Mayor Joe Williams. "We have nothing to show for it."

The $398 million bridge would have connected Ketchikan to its airport on a sparsely populated nearby Gravina island.

"We will continue to look for options for Ketchikan to allow better access to the island," Gov. Sarah Palin said. "The concentration is not going to be on a $400 million bridge."

Palin has directed the state Department of Transportation to find the most "fiscally responsible" alternative for access to the airport.

Palin said without federal funding, the state cannot afford a bridge, so the best option would be to upgrade the current ferry system.

Local officials called the decision premature, saying it came without warning.

"For somebody who touts process and transparency in getting projects done, I'm disappointed and taken aback," said Ketchikan Republican Rep. Kyle Johansen.

"This is contrary to about every statement she has ever made," he said. "We worked 30 years to get funding for this priority project."

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Republicans U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and U.S. Rep. Don Young championed the project through Congress two years ago, securing more than $200 million in funds for the bridge between Ketchikan, on Revillagigedo Island, and Gravina Island.

Under mounting political pressure over pork projects, Congress stripped the earmark — or stipulation — that the money be used for the airport.

Ultimately, Congress still sent the money to the state, but for any use it deemed appropriate.

The state eventually took much of that money for other projects around the state.

A spokeswoman from Young's office said he would have no comment. Stevens spokesman Aaron Saunders said the Senator is interested in how the state ultimately uses the money that went to the state.

Since earmark was removed, it still has been held up as the centerpiece example of waste and poor prioritizing by lawmakers.

Just last month, presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, weighed in, saying pet projects could have played a role in a Minnesota bridge collapse that killed 13 people.

"Maybe if we had done it right, maybe some of that money would have gone to inspect those bridges and other bridges around the country," McCain told a group of people in a town-hall style meeting in Ankeny, Iowa.

"Maybe the 200,000 people who cross that bridge every day would have been safer than spending $233 million of your tax dollars on a bridge in Alaska to an island with 50 people on it."

Ketchikan-Gateway Borough Assemblyman Mike Painter said the label "bridge to nowhere," is misplaced.

"The fact is, that's our international airport across the channel," Painter said. "Somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 people go back and forth annually to the airport."

On Friday Palin said the Ketchikan-Gravina project was $329 million short of getting fully funded.

"The federal government is less and less interested in continuing to fund these projects, she said. "It can't be a state priority for DOT when we have much-needed road and bridge improvements. Our intention is to work with the community to find a sensible and efficient shuttle connection, a better ferry service."

Access to Ketchikan, as with many towns in southeast Alaska, is limited to air and water transportation.

Every flight into Gravina Island requires a 15-minute ferry ride to reach the more densely populated Revillagigedo Island from the airport's site on Gravina Island.

Ketchikan is Alaska's entry port for northbound cruise ships that bring more than 1 million visitors yearly.

The town — seven blocks wide and eight miles long — has little room to grow. Local leaders have said access to Gravina Island also is needed to grow the town and the economy.

So with the bridge project shelved, DOT will look for a more affordable answer for Gravina Island access, Palin said.

The DOT will prepare a list of projects across the state where the $36 million in federal funds that was set aside for Gravina Island could be used.

DOT commissioner Leo von Scheben told Ketchikan officials last month that he was concerned about getting bridge funding, which could range from $225 million to nearly $400 million.

In a statement Friday, he said the excess bridge money could be used to build roads in Alaska.

"There is no question we desperately need to construct new roads in this state, including in southeast Alaska, where skyrocketing costs for the Alaska Marine Highway System present an impediment to the state's budget and the region's economy," von Scheben said.

Johansen disagreed with this assessment.

"This is not a subsidy; the marine system is integral to our economy," he said. "If the governor can find a road in Alaska that makes money I will go up there and do a jig on it."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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