Yesterday, we reported that Akutan residents are pleased with their new airport taxi — a helicopter that came online in February. The Aleutians East Borough is already running out of money to pay for it. Today, in the second part of our series on the struggle to connect Akutan to its airport, the borough settles on a permanent solution. It’s one they rejected a decade ago.
Akutan’s airport is unique in a lot of ways. For one, it’s not on Akutan – it’s seven miles away, on Akun Island.
That means airport operations are a little more complicated than normal. So, they’re divided up among three groups: the city of Akutan, the Aleutians East Borough and the state of Alaska.
One major task is getting people from Akutan to the airport. Sean Holland, of the state department of transportation, says that job falls to just one entity:
“The Aleutians East Borough agreed to provide and fund the operation of the marine link between the city of Akutan and the island of Akun,” he says.
The borough started exploring their options almost a decade ago. A boat seemed like the obvious choice. But they could also try a hovercraft or a helicopter — whatever was cheapest and most reliable.
They hired a maritime engineering firm to figure that out. Glosten Associates said a hovercraft would be able to make the trip to the airport 90 percent of the time, at a cost of just over a million dollars a year. They said that made it cheaper and more efficient than a boat.
That was in 2005, years before borough administrator Rick Gifford was hired. But he knows the history. Based on Glosten’s work, Gifford says the borough was prepared to cover the million-dollar annual cost:
“It was kind of estimated that between charges for passengers and for freight, that they might be able to recoup up to half a million dollars of that,” he says.
And he says they agreed to pay another half a million out of pocket.
The borough was able to save money by recycling a hovercraft they’d already bought for King Cove. It stopped running there in 2010 after it proved too costly and unreliable.
In March 2010, the state broke ground on the airport. Construction was going well for about a year – until the Aleutians East Borough hit a snag.
At a meeting in 2011, the borough assembly re-calculated how much money the hovercraft would bring in. Their estimates were a lot lower than what Glosten Associates had told them years before — and the assembly wasn’t completely sure why.
KUCB reached out to Glosten about the alleged discrepancies, and the firm wouldn’t comment.
Whatever the reason, the assembly was no longer sure if the hovercraft could work long-term.
So they had a choice: Go back to the drawing board, pick a different vehicle, and possibly delay construction – or let it keep going. The state would finish building the airport around the hovercraft. And the borough could eventually use those same facilities for a helicopter, in hopes of saving some money.
And that’s exactly what they decided to do. Three years later, Rick Gifford, the borough administrator, says things have gone about as well as the assembly expected:
“As it’s turned out, the hovercraft cost three times more than a million dollars — it cost over $3 million,” he says. “They’re just not willing to do that. They can’t sustain it.”
In February, the borough made the switch to the helicopter. It’s going to cost $2 million a year — which is less than the hovercraft, but, Gifford says, still not cheap enough.
So after a decade, the borough is looking once again for a permanent way to connect to the airport. Their only option now is a ferry. Gifford says it’ll take at least five years and millions of dollars to set one up on Akun.
“A dock and a breakwater is not cheap. It’s a major capital item up front,” he says. “So it’s going to take some money to get it started. … but once those dollars are put in up front, then you’ll reduce the annual operating cost to the point where it’s feasible.”
Sean Holland, of the DOT, says the state has money left over for the Akutan project. It could help pay for the dock — but Holland isn’t sure if they could use it for the helicopter.
And that’s a problem for the borough: administrator Rick Gifford says they’re running out of money.
“So unless we get some financial help from the state and the users, primarily Trident Seafoods, I just don’t know … how long the borough will be willing to sustain that higher amount that it’s costing them,” he says.
Ideally, he says the borough would split the cost of the helicopter with Trident and the state. Trident’s processing plant in Akutan is the biggest in North America. They fly in thousands of workers every year — but they’ve already made contributions to the airport. As for the state: the legislature declined to pitch in last year.
Gifford says the borough has about six months before they can’t afford to run the helicopter anymore. It’s not clear what that would mean for the 90 residents of Akutan Village.
Mayor Joe Bereskin says they’ve been in limbo for a long time, and it’s starting to feel like the norm.
“It’s a revolving door that we have to go through until we get some sort of structure on Akun for some sort of conventional vessel out there,” he says. “It’s just what we’re faced with out here, and we’ll deal with it, best of our abilities.”
There’s not much else he can do. It’s up to the Aleutians East Borough to bridge the gap for good. The only question now is if they’ll have to do it on their own.