he tiny Alaskan hamlet of Akutan is getting a new $64 million airport, paid for almost entirely with federal tax dollars. But the airport isn't on Akutan — a remote island in the Aleutian chain, with about 100 year-round inhabitants. It's on Akun, an uninhabited island next door. And with the airport slated to be finished soon, Alaska officials still don't know how they're going to get passengers from Akun to Akutan. Sour memories of Alaska's scrapped $398 million "bridge to nowhere" are still fresh, says Rachel Rose Hartman at Yahoo News, but if no reliable transportation fix is found, Akutan "will essentially have a 'runway to nowhere'." Here's what you should know:
What is $64 million buying?
The money — $59 million in federal funds and $5 million from Alaska — will pay for construction of the airport and 4,500-foot runway on Akun, but won't help connect the airport to Akutan, six miles away over the often-treacherous Bering Sea. The original $77 million project budget called for up to $13 million for a hovercraft, an air-propelled craft that moves just above the water, to bridge that gap. But the same type of 40-passenger hovercraft has proven too costly and unreliable crossing similarly high waves and rough winds in another Aleutian Island community.
Why on Earth are they building this airport?
Akutan is home to a Trident Seafoods processing plant — the largest in North America — that swells the island's population to more than 1,000 during the summer season. Trident is chipping in $1 million for the project. Akutan is also building a $31 million harbor, with most of the funding coming from the 2009 federal stimulus package.
How do people get to Akutan now?
It's serviced by 11 weekly flights on World War II–era Grumman Goose amphibious aircraft operated by Peninsula Air. Those planes use a seaplane base right off Akutan, but they are getting harder and more expensive to maintain, says PenAir's Bryan Carricaburu. "The Grummans are going away."
If the hovercraft doesn't work out, what's Plan B?
Helicopters. Proponents of this plan say that a helicopter could use the same landing pads planned for the hovercraft and wouldn't have to worry about rough seas. If a plane can land on Akun, they note, a helicopter can fly the six miles to Akutan. On the downside, a helicopter could only carry about nine passengers at a time, tops.
What do airport boosters say?
Leo von Scheben, who was the Alaska Department of Transportation chief when the project was being planned, says $77 million is actually a pretty reasonable cost for an airport in the Alaska wilderness. And the project could even save Uncle Sam some money, says PenAir's Carricaburu. Right now, PenAir gets about $700,000 a year in federal subsidies, through the Essential Air Service program. Once it starts flying larger and more cost-efficient aircraft to Akutan, those costs will probably drop.
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