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1410_RadioLab

Akutan Builds Harbor First, Access Later

By | November 14, 2012

While Akutan’s new airport has received considerable attention and scrutiny for being expensive and inaccessible, another large infrastructure project on the island that suffers some of the same problems has mostly flown under the radar.

Over the last two years, Knik Construction has converted what was once a flat stretch of tundra at the end of Akutan Bay into a full-size boat harbor.

“We’ve excavated almost a million cubic yards of material,” says project manager Craig Bauld.

For now, the harbor is mostly just a big hole in the ground. While the construction team has finished its work, there’s still no electricity, no running water, and no floats. There’s also no road from the village, which is two miles away, so the only way to access the boat harbor is by boat. That means the harbor is cut off from the village’s grocery store, post office and fuel dock. Steve Boardman is head of the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil projects division. He says transportation situation is unusual.

“Yes. It’s not normal. And it has prevented the construction of harbors in the past, when that supporting infrastructure is not there.”

Boardman says the Corps made an exception in this case because of the harbor’s strategic importance.

“Akutan is one of the major ports [in the country] – and I use the word port kind of liberally, because there was no port structure there until now – and Trident Seafoods is the largest seafood processor in the Aleutians. So you have this very large fleet, handling very large fisheries, and there was no facilities for them.”

Boardman adds that it helped that the project was ‘shovel-ready’ when $29 million of federal stimulus money became available in 2009.

“And in this particular case, we knew a road was being contemplated,” Boardman says.

The road is still being contemplated, but construction is at least a few years out. Every foot of the road will need to be blasted from the steep cliffs ringing Akutan Bay. That requires permits and money – lots of it.

“Our first estimate was at $18.1 million,” says Jacob Stepetin, the administrator for Akutan Traditional Council, the group responsible for the road project. ”But that was when we first planned it. It’s been two years now, so you know that’s going up.”

That’s $11 million per mile. Stepetin says the Council has petitioned the state government, the federal government, and Trident Seafoods for money, but so far, there aren’t any hard commitments.

The road isn’t the only challenge ahead for Akutan’s harbor. On top of the access problem and lack of services, once the harbor opens, there’s no guarantee there will be enough boats to fill the harbor’s 58 slips. But there will be at least five – that’s the number of boats owned by locals.

“I personally own half a vessel,” says Akutan mayor Joseph Bereskin. ”And I want to get my own  vessel, so this is going to give me that opportunity and I think eventually other individuals will get into the fisheries as well, and this harbor is just a piece of that puzzle.”

The hope is that Trident’s fleet will fill the gap between the local boats and the harbor’s capacity. At any given time, the company has up to 30 boats delivering fish to its Akutan processing plant. Right now, Trident rotates its boats through other ports in the region when they’re not fishing, but plant manager Dave Abbasian says that could change once the harbor is finished — and he’s not terribly worried about the lack of infrastructure.

“As with anything else, when you build something, then everything starts collecting around it, building around it.”

For now, the only structure of any kind near the harbor is a maintenance hangar for the hovercraft that ferries passengers between the village of Akutan and the new airport on Akun island. The hovercraft hasn’t received a lot of positive press, but it may turn out to be the solution for the boat harbor’s accessibility problems. The Aleutians East Borough says it will consider using the hovercraft as a shuttle between the harbor and the village while a road is under construction. Or alternatively, boaters can just keep a boat in their boat.

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