Monday, July 30, 2007

Former Ketchikan Mayor Lew Williams Confronts And Exposes Misinformation About Southeast Alaska's Proposed Gravina Island Bridge

In his July 28th, 2007 column in the conservative Voice of the Times (the surviving Internet-only remnant of the old Anchorage Times), former Ketchikan Mayor Lew Williams confronts and exposes the misinformation which has grown up around the proposed Gravina Island Bridge, which would link the city of Ketchikan to its international airport on Gravina Island. He also takes some prominent Alaskans to task for not defending Alaska's interest more vigorously on this and other issues.

Click HERE to read Williams' column in its entirety.

The Gravina Island Bridge has been dubbed the $200 million "Bridge To Nowhere", because Gravina Island has only 50 full-time residents. However, this simplistic statement fails to account for the amount and variety of economic activity in the area which significantly exceeds the impact of only 50 full-time residents. Here's the defining excerpt from Williams' column:

For those in Congress, and for major media who have never visited Alaska: "Nowhere," Gravina Island, is the site of the only major airport at the southern end of the 500-mile long Alaska Panhandle. There are no roads or railroads into the area. It is a five-hour ferry ride to the nearest highway terminus at Prince Rupert, B.C. So air transport is vital.

Alaska Airlines operates eight 737 jetliner flights a day in and out of the airport. Six air taxi services meet the jets to transfer passengers, freight and mail to more than a dozen outlying communities. Air cargo planes of FedEx and UPS stop daily. Evergreen's 727 jets fly the U.S. mail in and out nightly.

Two air ambulance companies are stationed at the airport. They are especially busy in the summer when 2,000 to 9,000 cruise ship passengers visit each day. Many are elderly and require medical evacuation when Ketchikan's competent medical services are overtaxed.

Quite a few hundred people are employed on Gravina by air carriers, FAA, TSA, the borough, concessionaires, contractors and other private businesses. There is no housing on Gravina for them or airline passengers. The borough has worn out two airport ferries and is seeking a fourth after carrying 1,000 people and 250 vehicles a day for 34 years (apparently the third ferry, currently in use, is reaching the end of its useful service life).

Major air carriers like Alaska Airlines, Evergreen, FedEx and UPS do not exactly fly to "nowhere". Two thousand to nine thousand cruise ship passengers do not exactly visit "nowhere". It's obvious that Ketchikan, despite a population of under 10,000, is an economic nerve center of Southeast Alaska. And the number of local people employed by these enterprises is in the hundreds, exceeding by far the number 0f full-time residents of Gravina Island.

In addition, the statement about "wearing out two airport ferries" should also be a concern. These ferries are wearing out because of repetitive use. How often must these ferries be replaced? In contrast, a bridge, once built, need not be replaced under normal circumstances. Has anyone compared the recurring replacement cost of ferries in today's dollars with the one-time cost of building the bridge? In the long run, the one-time cost of building a bridge would seem like a more efficient use of public funds than repeatedly spending public funds to replace ferries (even if the bridge is built, a ferry would undoubtedly remain in service as a backup in case the bridge must be closed for maintenance, but it would not be used on a regular basis)

Lew Williams also takes issue with prominent Alaskans who, in his words, have "jumped on their own people". Williams tells us that one Alaska newspaper editor has declared Congressman Young "corrupt to the core" without any [previous] investigation or charges filed. Young has been ridiculed by his state's largest newspaper [the Anchorage Daily News] for 34 years. And that California-owned newspaper, resenting Young's and Stevens' ability to direct funds to Alaska, already is [in Williams' opinion] mounting a campaign to defeat them in 2008.

Alaska Democratic Party Chairman and newly-declared candidate for Don Young's House seat Jake Metcalfe referred to Young and Stevens in a letter to the editor of the Juneau Empire as "corrupt bastards." Williams characterizes Metcalfe's assessment as "pretty harsh for people who haven't been charged or convicted of anything", and suggests his attitude may be why he [Metcalfe] is no longer a district attorney.

Lew Williams also takes issue with a tired old canard, most recently parroted by a retired Wasilla contractor who wrote from California: "In 2004, Alaskans received $1.87 in federal funds for every $1.00 they paid in. Californians received a paltry 79 cents . . . . .With no state income tax or sales tax, and $39 billion in your savings account, it's no longer necessary for Lower 48 Americans to carry Alaskans on their back". Yada, yada, yada. Of course, this incomplete and misleading sound bite makes us Alaskans look like a bunch of freeloaders.

Here's how Williams explains it. Yes, the federal government and residents of the Lower 48 constantly remind Alaskans that the reserves in Alaska are owned by us, too. But here's the dichotomy: Of the 365 million acres of land in the state, 244 million acres are owned by the Federal government. Another 37 million acres are Native land, for a total of 281 million acres. This 281 million acres cannot, by law, be taxed by the state. Yet the state of Alaska still provides health, education and safety services, fish and game management, access (nearby airports, harbors, roads)in one form or another to residents of this tax-exempt land. But the federal money spent in Alaska only partially pays for services to this tax-exempt land. The oft-regurgitated $1.87-to-$1.00 canard does not consider this significant variation. Consequently, if you believe that public services should be extended only to those who are willing to help pay for them through taxation in some form, then you might agree that the federal government isn't really providing its fair share.

Of course, we Alaskans could consider ways to make up that aforementioned deficit in-house. We don't have a state sales tax or an income tax. We do have a Permanent Fund, a part of which is set aside as a rainy day contingency for the state, and another part providing dividend payments to qualified Alaskans each year. But that would require some tough decision-making that most state lawmakers are not prepared to confront and most state residents not prepared to accept.

Consequently, if the federal government is not contributing its fair share towards state services to its lands, then the earmarks and projects our Congressional delegation diverts to us are not merely "pork", but an effort to make up for the aforementioned deficit. And while some Alaskans hate to admit it, we keep re-electing Stevens and Young because they can "deliver the goods".

So the real issue with the Gravina Island Bridge is not the "need"; Williams clearly makes a persuasive case for it, and I've always been convinced of the need. What's in question is the priority. When should it be built? Should we impetuously demand it RIGHT NOW, possibly jeopardizing other higher-priority projects? The Knik Arm Bridge, necessary to better guide increasing north-south traffic through an Anchorage metro area increasingly plagued by bottlenecks, would seem to have a HIGHER priority. We must also be conscious of the fact that our Republican Congressional delegation lost a certain amount of power when Congress reverted to Democratic control, and the controlling Democrats are LESS FRIENDLY to Alaska than the Republicans.

As a result, if we try to "get it all" right now, we run a risk of not getting any of it. We may have to pick and choose which projects are most important. So, although Lew Williams has clearly justified the need for the Gravina Island Bridge, the Knik Arm Bridge is more vital.

Consequently, if we must choose between the two projects, we should agree to defer the Gravina Island Bridge until a more propitious moment in order to better assure the approval and construction of the Knik Arm Bridge.

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