The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly decided Monday to back off its longstanding endorsement of a bridge to Gravina Island, and instead opted to support improved ferry service.

In a 5-2 vote, the Assembly directed Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst to submit comments to the state Department of Transportation endorsing Alternative G4, which calls for new ferry ramps and improved facilities next to the existing ferry terminals. Assembly members also asked Bockhorst to prepare a resolution mirroring those comments, and ask the state to extend the comment period.

At this point, DOT is accepting comments through Aug. 13 on the Gravina Access project’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Study, released last month. The options include two bridge designs and four ferry plans.

During the Assembly’s public comment, Don Westlund detailed problems he sees with the proposed bridge Alternative F3, which calls for two spans, a low bridge from just south of city limits to Pennock island, and then a high bridge from Pennock to Gravina.

Westlund says the west channel, which would have the high bridge, is not suitable for large ships because of reefs, areas with shallow draft, and other obstacles. He says the second proposed bridge alternative, C3-4, would create possible airspace conflicts.

“On marginal days, they said if the bridge is in the airspace, you wouldn’t have a plane landing, and we have a lot of marginal days,” he said.

Westlund says DOT needs to have another public hearing in Ketchikan, and not in the summertime when everyone is busy. He also wonders why the idea of an underwater tube was not explored.

Eric Muench also spoke during public comment, and says the Assembly should continue to push for a bridge. But, he says, because of Gravina’s low level of development now, a bridge won’t score well for funding. He suggests that the community ask for some ferry improvements now, and a bridge later.

Doug Ward and Len Laurance both asked the Assembly to continue its endorsement of a hard link – a bridge – rather than more ferries.

Later, Assembly Member Mike Painter started the Assembly discussion of the issue. He says it’s unlikely that Ketchikan will ever get a bridge.

“Uncle Ted is no longer with us. Gov. Frank is no longer in office,” he said. “Our best time for a hard link access to Gravina has come and gone. It did get started; we did get the Gravina Highway; it looked like it was going to happen. But politics as they may be, the moon and the stars are no longer in alignment.”

Painter says he would like to see a better ferry system, with redundancy built in in case of equipment failure. He adds that an endowment fund to help pay for maintenance and operations of the ferries would make sense.

Mayor Dave Kiffer says he’s worried that if the state doesn’t set aside money for operations, it will give Ketchikan ferries, and then make the community pay for operations, maintenance and long term replacement.

“We’re going to be in a situation where we’re going to literally – probably not us, but a future Assembly in five or six years — of handing the airport back,” he said. “And if that’s what we want to do, that’s fine. But otherwise, we’re going to be stuck with expensive, shiny new toys that never leave the dock.”

Assembly Member Bill Rotecki participated by phone. He notes that if the Assembly endorsed a bridge, nothing would happen because the money is no longer there to pay for it. He says that accepting a ferry alternative would at least improve the current service, and he’s willing to give the airport back to the state if it refuses to adequately fund that service.

The Ketchikan City Council last week also voted in favor of ferry Alternative G4 rather than either of the bridge options, citing concerns over how the proposed bridges would affect cruise ship traffic. That concern came up at Monday’s Assembly meeting, as well.

Assembly Member Todd Phillips spoke against endorsing ferries over bridges. He notes that cruise ships go away, and bridges don’t. While he’s not saying the cruise industry will dry up in Ketchikan, he says it’s possible, and if that happens, Ketchikan needs a better way to develop Gravina Island.

Phillips and Assembly Member Glen Thompson cast the two votes against sending a letter to DOT endorsing ferry Alternative G4.

The Assembly also voted unanimously during the meeting to place a measure on the October ballot that, if approved by voters in Saxman and in the South Tongass Service Area, would combine the two into a new service area for fire and EMS. The two water services would remain separate.