While not an action item during this week’s meeting, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly on Monday talked about the long-awaited Gravina Access project – a state-led project to improve access to Gravina Island, where Ketchikan’s airport is located, along with private and publicly owned property.
Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst provided a summary of the Gravina Access project for Assembly members. He noted that the original appropriation for the project was $364.3 million. That federal and state money was intended for a bridge between Revilla and Gravina islands, but the bridge was canceled in 2008 after political backlash.
Since then, Bockhorst said, “$209.3 million of that found its way to transportation improvements in communities other than those in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. $96 million remains unspent of the original $364.3 million.”
State officials in October announced their likely, but not yet official, preferred alternative to complete the Gravina Access project. They chose improved ferry service.
That preferred alternative was the cheapest option identified by the state in its earlier Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, and is estimated to cost about $23 million. It includes a passenger waiting facility, shuttle vans, a heavy freight dock, new ferry transfer bridges, upgraded sidewalks and ramps, and replacement of the ferry layup dock.
It would not include new ferries or additional ferry service unless demand increased.
Local officials were less-than-pleased with that choice. Here’s Bockhorst again, speaking to the Assembly: “Implementation of that prospective preferred alternative would have allowed $73 million of the remaining $96 million to be allocated to the same part of Alaska that the $209.3 million was allocated.”
Bockhorst provided some suggestions after that October announcement from the state that would use all of the $96 million remaining in the project account for Ketchikan.
That borough proposal has since been updated, and details were in a letter to Gov. Bill Walker, dated Jan. 5, that was in the Assembly meeting packet for review. The letter proposes improvements to the terminals on Revilla and Gravina islands to address pedestrian access and safety. Those improvements would include heated seating areas.
The letter also proposes that the state pay for at least three years of operational costs for shuttle vans purchased by the state, and that the state pay to improve existing ferries to reduce operating costs, and increase safety, accessibility and passenger capacity. And, lastly, the letter proposes that the state extend the Gravina Island road system to provide better access to state, borough and private land.
During public comment, Keith Smith of the local Southeast Alaska Independent Living office suggested that the borough letter focus more on improving access for people with disabilities. He noted that Ketchikan’s airport is currently not accessible, in part because the ramp leading to the ferry is too steep at low tide.
“It’s worth there being at least a couple of sentences stating that a hard link to Gravina would have solved this specific problem, and any solution that is finally come for Gravina Access should at least pay for and resolve that specific insufficiency,” Smith said.
Assembly Members agreed that was an important argument to put forward. Here’s Assembly Member Mike Painter: “I think of all of the rationale of trying to capture that $96 million for improvements for access for Gravina, the ADA issue has the most teeth.”
Borough Mayor David Landis added that the community has fought for decades, first for the bridge and then for the funding that would have gone toward the bridge.
“A huge majority of that is gone,” he said. “We’re left with some, but let’s not give up the fight. Let’s not settle for less than what we still have the opportunity for.”
The Gravina Access project became nationally infamous during the buildup to the 2008 election when then-Gov. Sarah Palin redirected federal funding for the project, and made Ketchikan’s “Bridge to Nowhere” part of her vice-presidential campaign stump speech.
While some in Ketchikan still want a bridge, most residents have accepted that better ferry service is likely the most Ketchikan will ever receive.