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Palin said yes to a road to nowhere

September 19, 2008|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

GRAVINA ISLAND, ALASKA — The 3.2-mile-long partially paved "road to nowhere" meanders from a small international airport on Gravina Island, home to 50 people, ending in a cul-de-sac close to a beach.

Crews are working to finish it. But no one knows when anyone will need to drive it.

That's because the $26-million road was designed to connect to the $398-million Gravina Island Bridge, more infamously known as the "bridge to nowhere." Alaskan officials thought federal money would pay for the bridge, but Gov. Sarah Palin killed the project after it was ridiculed and Congress rescinded the money. Plans for the road moved forward anyway.

Some residents of Ketchikan -- a city of 8,000 on a neighboring island where the bridge was to end -- see the road as a symbol of wasteful spending that Palin could have curtailed. Some of them even accuse her of deception.

"Surely we won't have to commute on the highway if there won't be a bridge," said Jill Jacob, who has been writing and calling the governor's office for the last two years to protest the road. "It's a dead-end highway, a dead-end road."

Since Palin was named the Republican vice presidential nominee two weeks ago, she has been boasting that she told Congress that Alaska didn't want the hundreds of millions that had been earmarked for the bridge.

But in 2006, Palin stood before residents in this region during her gubernatorial campaign and expressed support for the bridge. It became apparent after she was elected that the state's portion would be too costly, and Palin ordered transportation officials to abandon the project.

She held on to the $223 million in federally earmarked funds for other uses, such as the Gravina road, approved by her predecessor.

"Here's my question," said Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein. "If Sarah Palin is not being truthful on an issue like the Gravina bridge project, what else is she not being truthful about?"

Alaska transportation officials say construction of the road began in June 2007 because the state was still hoping to build a bridge, and "you need that highway access," said Roger Wetherell, a department spokesman.

But Weinstein, who backed the bridge project, said that Palin should have redirected the money. "If the bridge was canceled, give the money back, or get the earmark removed, or redesign the road so it's better for development," he said. "Especially if you're opposed to earmarks, and now you're telling the world you're opposed to earmarks."

His frustration came to a head after he heard Republican presidential nominee John McCain and Palin tout her reputation as a reformer focused on saving taxpayer money. He didn't feel much better when a campaign ad called them "the original mavericks," and said: "She stopped the 'bridge to nowhere.' "

Weinstein need only glance across the salmon-rich waters separating his city from Gravina Island to see what he believes are millions of dollars being spent unnecessarily. Why, he asks, didn't she stop that?

Geographic limitations

Ketchikan is on Revillagigedo Island, about 35 miles wide and 55 miles long, a stretch of rugged hills, mountains and spruce. Residents talk of reaching into the clear water and grabbing wriggling salmon with their bare hands. Locals drink rainwater, rarely use umbrellas and hide their garbage from black bears. It is a place where many residents own boats, and the 600-student high school mascot is the king salmon.

It started as a fishing enclave of Alaska Natives, then white settlers built a thriving logging industry. But the city's last major pulp mill shut down in 1997, and nearly 500 jobs were lost.

"Ten percent of our economy disappeared overnight," Weinstein said. "That's why projects like the Gravina access project became all the more important."

Tourism is now Ketchikan's main source of income, with 1 million visitors annually. Between May and September, cruise ships the size of stadiums -- often several at a time -- stop daily, unleashing passengers to admire the abundance of totem poles and stop at the dozens of stores selling necklaces and earrings made of gold nuggets and violet-blue tanzanite.

Todd Phillips and his wife, who own a shop on Main Street, moved here from Denver 11 years ago because they liked the region's tranquillity and entrepreneurial potential. But the city needs to grow, he said, adding that Palin was right on the bridge issue "in the beginning, and she should have followed through with it."

Now, Phillips said, "we feel like we just don't count. We're just a forgotten dot."

Ketchikan, with its vast stretches of protected wetlands and forests, has little room to grow. About a quarter-mile across the Tongass Narrows waters sits the mostly flat and vacant Gravina Island, about 21 miles long and 10 miles wide, and ripe for commercial and residential development. A 10-minute ferry boat ride takes passengers and their vehicles from one island to the other.

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