A $64 million runway for no one in Alaska?
The route a hovercraft would take between the village of Akutan and the runway on Akun Island.
September 28th, 2011
12:56 PM ET

A $64 million runway for no one in Alaska?

Remember Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere," a $400 million span that was supposed to connect Ketchikan to its airport on sparsely inhabited Gravina Island? The project gained infamy in 2005 as a waste of taxpayer dollars and the funds earmarked for it were withheld. The 8,000 residents of Ketchikan continue to be connected to their airport by ferry.

Fast forward six years and another remote Alaskan airport project is raising questions about how the government spends money.

The price this time is $77 million and the place is Akutan, a remote island village in the Aleutian chain, according to a report from the Alaska Dispatch.

By next winter Akutan is scheduled to have a 4,500-foot-long runway, built at a cost of $64 million ($59 million in federal and $5 million state funds), the Dispatch reports. The problem is, the runway is on Akun Island, 6 miles from the village across the treacherous waters of the Bering Sea. Plying those waters can be tricky with seas over 6 feet and winds above 30 mph.

Original plans called for using a hovercraft - at a cost of $11 million - to ferry passengers from Akutan to Akun. But, the Dispatch points out, the same model hovercraft planned for the route has proven unreliable under similar conditions elsewhere in Alaska. And when it did run, operating losses were in the millions.

Now, transportation officials are considering using a helicopter to ferry passengers from Akutan, according to the Dispatch report. Cost of that is still being determined.

Should officials get it all figured out and funded, who'll benefit? Akutan has a year-round population of 100, but that spikes to about 1,000 in the summer when Trident Seafoods processing plant, the largest seafood processing plant in North America, is in operation, the Dispatch reports. Trident is contributing $1 million to the project, the Dispatch says.

And why is this necessary? Air service to Akutan is now provided by World War II-era amphibious aircraft operated by Peninsula Airways. Those are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, Peninsula Vice President Brian Carricaburu told the Dispatch.

Carricaburu also says the runway could cut the government's costs in one way. Peninsula Airways routes to Akutan are now subsidized by about $700,000 annually under the federal Essential Air Service program. Using bigger, more efficient aircraft could bring that cost down, he told the Dispatch.

But to reach that point, it looks like a lot of figurative bridges have to be crossed.

Post by:
Filed under: Air travel • Alaska • Travel
soundoff (937 Responses)
  1. Lola

    Hmm... I'm no civil engineer and I don't immediately understand why this bridge is imperative, but, assuming one IS needed... would it be possible to build TWO SMALLER bridges to provide more reliable access between the two land masses vs. one loooooong one? I'm thinking: 1) one bridge from Akun Island to the closest access point on Akutan Island and 2) Akutan Island to oppposite side of Akutan Harbor.

    September 29, 2011 at 9:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Jimmie B.

      This article isn't about a bridge being built between Akutan and Akun. It's about a proposed airport in Akutan. The bridge in this article is the Bridge to Nowhere that was going to connect Ketchikan and Gravina Island. In any case, as for the two smaller bridges that you suggest, one would be over a mile and a half long and the other would be nearly a mile long. And then you have to build nearly 10 mile road between the two in mountain terrain. 77 million dollars for an airport would be chump change compared to the cost of what you're suggesting.

      September 29, 2011 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  2. Foolish Fun

    Until they eliminate the practice of attaching riders to legislative bills we will continue to see pork belly projects that cost money but give very little return. The US government is run by self centered spendthrifts that think nothing of putting the tax burden on the public. Why not? They even have their own retirement system and don't need social security.

    The US has lost its way.....

    September 29, 2011 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
  3. Ilse

    *thoughtful look* I can understand the occupants of the island wanting easier, safer access to the mainland, however, according to the article, there are only 100 year round occupants, with an increase to 1000 at specific times of the year because of the Trident corp. Since the majority of the benefit will be enjoyed by the corporation, wouldn't it make more sense that at the very least they be made to contribute more than 1/64th of the cost? Or, since if it would not be cost effective, why doesn't Trident bear the expense and move the corporation to the mainland. Prior to the money being spent, I would really like to know how many of the indigenous people of the island are actually employed by Trident and would use the transport to the mainland. What are their thoughts on it? It would be a shame to spend all that money if only the employees that do the seasonal work benefit – that smacks of a big company getting the taxpayers to foot the bill.

    September 29, 2011 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
  4. Steve

    For population 100, couldn't you buy each person a one way ferry ticket to Kodiak, and give them $250k to start their life anew in a place with an airport? or subsidize Trident to the tune of $20m to find some other way of running their business in that area that does not require an oversized airport?

    September 29, 2011 at 9:53 am | Report abuse |
    • dabble53

      For less than $64M, I expect you could buy the whole island and move the people to a civilized part of the world.
      BTW, after they build the runway, who's going to pay for its maintenance?
      Why isn't Palin out there screaming against such a waste of taxpayer money?
      Hypocrites, all of them.

      September 29, 2011 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Dave H

      Why are people that choose to live in BF Egypt being subsidized at all? It's not like there isn't enough living space in the state already. I live in St. Louis and I have access to roads, airports, restaurants, schools, libraries, etc. That's why I live here. If I choose to move 100 miles outside of town in the middle of nowhere, I would not expect any of these services to be brought to me.

      September 29, 2011 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  5. itsacrazyworld

    What mentally ill Alaskan leader approved this project and spending of our tax dollars? Wait.........it couldn't be the same one that saw the Soviet Union from her backyard? Nevermind, that explains everything.

    September 29, 2011 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jimmie B.

    So, Trident Seafoods is an unsustainable business that is too big to fail? That's what I understood from this article. Why is this company still in business if they can't make enough money to provide transportation to its employees? Since when do unprofitable businesses HAVE to exist? Let it take care of its employees or let it do what it's supposed to do and die.

    September 29, 2011 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
  7. SBAMA

    No problem. We can just fire more teachers, firefighters, and police officers to pay for it and we'll make sure some good donors get the project with a 500% profit margin.

    September 29, 2011 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
  8. Sam

    Alaskans pay some of the lowest taxes in the country because of the Alaskan Pipeline. From wiki:
    Around 1976, "Alaska moved from the most heavily taxed state to the most tax-free state."
    If they're doing so well, they can pay for it themselves.

    September 29, 2011 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
  9. JimUtica

    It would seem that even a 3rd grader should be able to do the arithmetic here. Although a few assumptions must be made, I think it its reasonable to assume that the airline which would benefit the most by a new runway is going to paint the BEST POSSIBLE picture to promote the project - so if we assume their estimate of federal "savings" of $700,000 per year is the absolute maximum of savings possible - divide the $59,000,000 in federal money by the most optimistic savings of $700,000 ... that means that under the BEST conditions, using the simplest arithmetic - it will take a little over 84 years for the proposed runway to pay for itself. Even assuming that the airlines included on-going maintenance costs for the runway ... in Alaska's extreme winters - would a runway really last 84 years? I suspect that long before 84 years from the date of completion the whole project would need to be done all over again! If there are only 100 year-round residents - the federal government could offer each resident $250,000 to relocate somewhere not requiring an on-going federal subsidy - for a total 1-time cost of $25,000,00 - less than half the cost of federal share of that runway! There would be no on-going maintenance, no need to tear-up & repave the runway 3, 4 or 5 decades in the future, no more federal subsidy of $700,000 per year. If the seasonal spike in population is due to just 1 company's needs - let that company pay for all it's own expenses instead of having the federal government subsidize it with a $59,000,000 runway. It's great that the company is willing to contribute $1,000,000 for the runway ... since the runway would mainly benefit the seafood company - If I could have federal & state governments pay $64 for every $1 that I contribute toward a project that will benefit mainly ME - that's one great deal! I wonder if maybe that seafood company contributes a LOT of money to various political campaigns - or perhaps is owned by the immediately family of some national politician?

    September 29, 2011 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  10. Thatch Thompson

    Somehow the people of my generation (I'm 40) have to figure out how to protest and rally and have marches like they did in the 60's. Maybe organizing through facebook is the answer? We can't continue to watch this wasteful spending – deterioration of our country happen right in front of our faces. This is not a anti Obama message. He has nothing to do with this Alaska deal. Everyone needs to be in an uproar about this airport just like we were about the bridge.

    September 29, 2011 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
  11. joe t

    Sarah needs it for a better view of Russia.

    September 29, 2011 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
  12. Dave

    Is there some new Consitutional right to that requires the government provide a local airport or air transport service?

    September 29, 2011 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
  13. Oodoodanoo

    Hovercrafts have been used for thousands of years to serve remote fishing communities. That's why my hovercraft is full of eels.

    September 29, 2011 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
    • f

      "thousands of years"? Dude, really?

      September 29, 2011 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Oodoodanoo

      @f Well, you can't swim to Hawaii, can you? Nor can you flap your arms and fly there.

      September 29, 2011 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  14. Tom

    Runways are funny things. Did it ever occur to anyone that it might be of strategic use or for possible disaster relief? 4500' will handle a C-130. That maybe someone is actually thinking ahead here.

    September 29, 2011 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Jimmie B.

      So they actually have a really well thought out plan but aren't telling anyone?

      September 29, 2011 at 11:14 am | Report abuse |
  15. Seattle Sue

    CNN, could you do some investigative reporting and explain who pushed this through Congress?

    September 29, 2011 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32