By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchorage Daily News
November 23, 2005
They need to convince Railbelt state legislators it's not a "bridge to nowhere."
"We always believed that Don and Ted would take care of this. And consequently the people in the Alaska state Legislature don't understand (the need for the bridge)," said JC Conley, one of the main organizers of Ketchikan's effort to salvage the bridge project.
"We need to go to them and explain our story," he said.
After months of ridicule, Congress last week dropped its earmarks for both the so-called "bridges to nowhere" - the Ketchikan project and Anchorage's Knik Arm crossing. The state will still receive the $452 million in federal funds. But state legislators can now spend the money on projects other than the two bridges, and legislators from the state's Railbelt population centers are questioning the Ketchikan bridge.
Ketchikan partly has itself to blame, Conley said.
"I really believe we have not done our work in this town to make sure the bridge is understood," Conley said. "We have to accept the responsibility that we sat on our butts."
Conley, former vice mayor, said the group might call itself "Save Our Bridge," he said.
"We could stand on the Capitol steps with picket signs that say 'SOB,' " he said.
Conley said Ketchikan's economy absorbed a huge blow when its pulp mill closed in 1997. The community has about 13,000 residents, including about 7,700 in the city proper, according to the state. The economy relies on seasonal tourism and fish processing, he said.
Ketchikan, like other towns in Southeast, is wedged between the mountains and the sea and surrounded by the Tongass National Forest and other federal lands.
The bridge would provide access to about 1,700 acres of borough, state and private land on Gravina Island that could be developed over the next decade, according to borough planners. Bridge construction would also bring dollars into the economy and attract younger people as part of the labor pool to build it, Conley said.
Bridge advocates say that too many people, even in Alaska, think the bridge is only about connecting Ketchikan to its airport. It is currently a four-minute ferry ride from Ketchikan across Tongass Narrows to the airport on Gravina.
But even in Ketchikan there are many who say the bridge would be a mammoth waste of money. It would be more than a mile long in two sections and soar 200 feet above Tongass Narrows. It would go to an island of mostly federal land and few residents.
"I think it's just plain ludicrous," said Susan Walsh of Ketchikan.
The town's political leadership is firmly pro-bridge. Ketchikan state Rep. Jim Elkins is hopping mad about Railbelt lawmakers' comments against the project.
"Don't just shut us out because the national media made fun of us," he said.
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