Bridge up for debate

Span between Sterling, Funny River proposed

Posted: Wednesday, June 01, 2005

A bridge connecting Sterling and Funny River would cost between $10 million and $20 million to build and could leave the Kenai Peninsula Borough with the job of maintaining a span far larger than anything it maintains today, according to the borough roads director.

Nevertheless, the borough assembly is expected to consider a resolution at its June 7 meeting that supports the Funny River Bridge project. The resolution would authorize Mayor Dale Bagley to negotiate with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities regarding project administration and ownership. Bagley is the sponsor of Resolution 2005-044.

Spanning the Kenai River to join the two communities has been a dream for some area residents for decades. The borough clerk's office recently received about 130 signatures on a petition supporting construction of a bridge north of the end of Rabbit Run Road.

Some, however, are opposed. The clerk also has received numerous letters arguing that such a bridge is unnecessary, unwanted and a waste of money. Opponents suggest it is real estate developers and Anchorage residents who want the bridge — most not locals.

Assembly member Grace Merkes of Sterling said she has always supported construction of a bridge for general economic development and for transportation corridor planning.

"I think it is a good idea to open up some more country for the constituents of the state and the borough," she said.

She said, though, she thinks the measure should go to a boroughwide vote — boroughwide because in many ways it would be a benefit to the larger population.

The resolution calls on the borough administration to determine the exact local match associated with a $5 million federal grant already earmarked for the project by the federal 2004 Omnibus appropriations bill. Also to be determined is the extent of road maintenance duties that would be transferred to the borough were the bridge to be built, and what must be done to secure additional funding to complete the project.

In a memo to the assembly, Roads Director Gary Davis said DOT wants the borough to accept administration, management and ownership of the project. Under the mathematical logic of grant financing, the borough would be required to supply a 20 percent match equal to the $5 million, plus the match — that is, a total match of $1.25 million.

Davis said DOT had offered to provide half the local match if the borough also assumed maintenance of the roads connecting the bridge to the Sterling Highway and Funny River Road. If the assembly meets the state's conditions, the local match would fall to $625,000, or a tenth of the total, he said.

But even that wouldn't give the project a green light because $6.25 million isn't enough to finish the project, Davis said. The borough has estimates that say it would cost well over $11 million, and those estimates are not current. Where the extra money would come from still must be determined, he said.

The state wants the borough to take over maintenance of Huske Street on the Sterling side and Spring Street on the Funny River side. Improving those roads, Davis said, would be part of the overall project cost.

"Huske Street will need some major improvements, since it is currently a narrow road, and it intersects Scout Lake Loop Road at a dangerous curve and on the side of a slight hill," he said. "Spring Street is currently not constructed, and would be over one-half mile from Funny River Road."

The project also would require updating a 1997 environmental impact statement, Davis said. How much that would cost is unknown, but it could well eat into the existing $5 million federal grant.

The Road Service Area board has voiced its support for the project but wants the state to manage it, arguing that the state is in a far better position to do that and to lobby for additional funds.

The project has made it onto the State Transportation Improvement Projects (STIP) list but has never scored high enough to be eligible for federal funding under the STIP process.

Failure of the resolution would leave the fate of the earmarked $5 million up to DOT officials, Davis said.

Among the signers of the pro-bridge petition were several listing Sterling as their place of residence. But many more were from Kenai, Soldotna and even Kasilof.

Sterling resident Robert K. Wall said the bridge has the support of Funny River residents, is necessary for the communities to grow and prosper, and that the assembly should "continue its tradition" of voting the wishes of local communities.

He also said he expects the bridge will be opposed by Soldotna residents who want all the Sterling Highway traffic funneled through their community.

"Please resist any pressure from that group," he urged.

Also voicing support was Brad Bradney of Kenai, who said he'd first bought property in Funny River in 1979. People then were talking about a bridge project that would soon be built.

After 25 years, he said, "Maybe soon has finally arrived."

Bradney said the surrounding spruce forest killed by bark beetles threatens the Funny River area. He called it "a match waiting to be lit" and said the bridge would provide an alternate route out of the area in the event of a fire and quicker access by Alaska State Troopers in the event of an emergency.

But others oppose the bridge.

Sterling resident Norm Israelson said the petitions in circulation made no mention of the many costs associated with building the bridge nor any other pros or cons. Many people, he said, don't know the proposed location or what impact the bridge would have.

He questioned whether the borough was ready to assume the cost of maintaining the bridge and said a boat launch and public area called for by the project could be problematic.

"This is an extremely dangerous part of the river and the scene of many accidents, including the drowning of a young girl last fall," he said. "It is only a mile below the public launch site at Moose River."

William and Sandra Daugherty of Sterling said they were "strongly opposed" to the resolution, in part because the bridge site has changed considerably since the project was initially proposed and is now completely occupied.

"The reasons presented in the past for the bridge are no longer valid, and borough funds should be more wisely spent," they said.

"Please add my name to the list of people who extremely oppose this dinosaur of a bridge project," said Marvin Huske, who said he's been battling the bridge for the better part of 30 years. It would be located at the southern end of his homestead, he said.

The fact that Funny River Road is paved and a fire station with an ambulance has been built makes certain safety arguments in favor of a bridge moot, Huske added.

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