Do you remember the kerfuffle over the Bridge to Nowhere? It was to be built in Alaska with about $400 million in federal funds. It would have connected the town of Ketchikan, Alaska (pop. 14,000) with Gravina Island, where the Ketchikan International Airport is located, and where less than 100 permanent residents reside. A ferry adequately serviced the airport for years, but a new bridge would have been spectacular. According to published reports, the bridge would have been almost as long as the Golden Gate Bridge, and higher than the Brooklyn Bridge. In 2005, however, the bridge became a well-publicized symbol of wasteful pork barrel spending, so Congress canceled the earmark that would have funded it.
A highway 3.2 miles long was also to be built to connect the bridge to the airport. After the bridge was canceled, however, the highway was built anyway. It cost about $25 million. No one uses the highway now because it ends at a waterway known as the Tongass Narrows, and there is no bridge to cross over. It was called, therefore, the “Road to Nowhere.” Wikipedia states that, according Alaska officials, the road project went ahead because all the money came from the federal government. If it weren’t built, the money would have to be returned. Better to keep it and spend it, even on a road that went nowhere.
Like Alaska, Wallingford also has a grant it doesn’t want to lose. Part of the grant is earmarked for a walking trail that would connect the Community Lake parking lot with the Senior Center. It would be 2,400’ long. One section would be asphalt and another would be boardwalk. It would go over the Hall Ave. Bridge, run in back of White Way Cleaners, along the banks of a pond, through wooded and swampy areas, until it emerged at the Senior Center. It has been discussed since at least 2003, and the cost has been estimated to be about $1 million.
The other part of the grant would improve Hall Avenue with a new streetscape. If that’s ever completed, the road should look quite spiffy. The cost of that is about $1 million, also.
The mayor and the council made sure the entire grant was dependent upon building both projects. Now we learn, however, that the town never had the property rights it needs for the walking trail. The project, as promoted by the administration, was doomed from the start because the town is not going to acquire permission to build the trail on land the town doesn’t own. We will probably never know when the futility of the trail project became apparent, and why it took so long to learn of the problem. But the more immediate issue is the grant. What will happen to the money?
To save the grant, new plans call for a bridge crossing swamps, Community Lake, and the Quinnipiac River in order to connect the Senior Center with the parking lot at Community Lake. It sounds desperate and expensive, but exotically attractive at the same time. Like the bridge and road in Alaska, this is also a “transportation project.” Naturally, therefore, I am cautious. I have questions.
If the amount of the grant is limited, how much more money would Wallingford taxpayers have to spend to build this bridge just to save the grant? What would the maintenance and repair costs be over time, as a bridge that needs repair is a more serious issue than a trail over land that needs repair? Would a structure like this withstand flooding of the river? Could our local Inlands-Wetlands Commission ever approve this, and all the construction activity it would require, and still maintain credibility as the guardian of wetlands?
Finally, do we have other options? Can we at least discuss a bike lane along Hall Avenue, or is that an even crazier idea?
Mike Brodinsky is a former town councilor, chairman of the School Roof Building Committee and host of public access show “Citizen Mike.”