King Cove given approval to
pave road to Cold Bay

By Steve Mac Donald
KTUU-TV
Updated: 12:38 a.m. ET Jan. 19, 2004

King Cove given approval to pave road to Cold Bay

Jan. 15 - The Aleutian village of King Cove says it's finally found a solution to a long-time problem.

The village was given approval Thursday to build a road and hovercraft terminal linking it with the Cold Bay airport. The Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the project.

The project allows the Aleutians east borough to begin building a 17-mile road leading to a hovercraft dock on the shore of Cold Bay. Villagers will be able to travel across the bay to the Cold Bay Airport.

Environmentalists opposed the project for years because of its proximity to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, but according to the Army Corps of Engineers, the road and the dock will be built outside the refuge.

King Cove residents want access to the Cold Bay Airport because it's safer and more reliable than their own.

Also from the Aleutians East Borough

Aleutians East Borough Request for Qualifications King Cove Access Project

The Aleutians East Borough is requesting qualifications for design and construction of a 17.2 mile access road beginning near the King Cove airport and ending near the northeast corner of Cold Bay. Project components include road and bridge construction, hovercraft terminal grading, disposal of unsuitable soils, surfacing, drainage structures, and marine erosion protection.

Proposals must be received prior to 5 p.m. local time, Nov. 21, 2003 at the Aleutians East Borough offices located at 3380 C Street, Suite 205, Anchorage, Alaska 99503.

All project solicitors must register with the Aleutians East Borough (AEB) to be placed on the planholders list for the project and to receive all addenda when issued. Please see sidebar for details. Link to RFQ documents below.

King Cove Access Project Request for Qualifications Click to download zip file of RFQ documents (PDF format). If you download a project solicitation, you must register with the Aleutians East Borough.

Hovercraft to fill in for road link

KING COVE: Vessel will deliver access, while many still hope for street.

By JOEL GAY
Anchorage Daily News

Published: January 27th, 2005
Last Modified: January 27th, 2005 at 12:14 PM

Sparks will fly soon in a Seattle boatyard as welders start building a new $8.8 million hovercraft for King Cove, the isolated Alaska Peninsula fishing town that received federal funding for the boat instead of a road to nearby Cold Bay.

The 95-foot-long vessel, built with an appropriation backed by Sen. Ted Stevens several years ago, will float over 6-foot seas on a cushion of air. It will carry nearly 50 passengers, two wheelchairs and 23 tons of inbound groceries or outbound fish. It should be able to haul an ambulance and ailing King Cove resident to a medical evacuation flight in Cold Bay in 90 minutes, a trip that now can take days due to weather delays.

But while the vessel purchase order is a milestone in King Cove's 25-year quest for better access to emergency medical care and a boost to its economy, the news hasn't caused much celebration in the village of 725, said Mayor Henry Mack.

"We know we'll have a safe mode of transportation if we have a sick son or daughter, or sick grandpa or grandma," Mack said. "But 90 percent of the days we're still going to be flying."

At the same time, the cost-conscious Aleutians East Borough is unsure how it will operate and maintain an expensive vessel it didn't ask for, even as Gov. Frank Murkowski presses ahead with efforts to run a road through to Cold Bay, eliminating the need for the craft.

"To be honest," said lifelong King Cove resident Della Trumble, "the hovercraft solves an immediate transportation problem, but I don't think any of us think this is a long-term solution. We need a road."

A dozen people have died and others have been injured over the past 25 years in accidents involving airplanes flying into or out of King Cove. The village, wedged into a cleft on the rocky Alaska Peninsula coast, has an unlit gravel runway surrounded by tall mountains that is regularly wracked by gale-force winds racing between the North Pacific and the Bering Sea 20 miles away.

Eighteen air miles to the northwest of King Cove is Cold Bay. It's an even smaller community but is blessed with a World War II-era runway nearly two miles long -- long enough to be an emergency landing strip for the space shuttle. With its own Federal Aviation Administration flight service station and a National Weather Service office, it's sometimes the only open runway in the Aleutians.

King Cove residents started lobbying for a road link to Cold Bay and its runway after a spate of airplane crashes from 1979-81, including a medical evacuation flight that killed a nurse, her patient, a helper and the pilot.

The road idea has been embraced by Alaska governors and congressional delegations. But efforts to build it were stymied by Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a stretch of federal land between the two communities where roads are prohibited.

The refuge hosts hundreds of thousands of migrating ducks and geese and is a popular hunting area. Old roads criss-cross the Cold Bay side of the refuge, but there has never been a road all the way through. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, has opposed the road plan.

In 1998, after a second failed attempt to authorize a road, Congress passed the King Cove Health and Safety Act. In lieu of a road through the refuge, Stevens negotiated a package for the village worth $37.5 million, including $20 million for a road-marine link. The rest is to improve the village health clinic and runway.

"All of a sudden, all this money was flowing out of Washington," said Aleutians East Borough administrator Bob Juettner. "We were scratching our heads, because we didn't ask for anything" other than the road.

A federal study not completed until 2003 ruled out several options for the new transportation link, including a traditional ferry and expanded air service.

It recommended a large hovercraft capable of handling the stiff winds and high seas that Cold Bay regularly dishes up. But instead of placing the terminal in King Cove, the study suggested a new site 17 miles up the coast, near the head of the bay, to reduce the vessel's exposure to the weather.

Work on a new, one-lane gravel road to the terminal site started in 2004 and should be done later this year, Juettner said.

The vessel is a design by the British firm Hoverwork Ltd. The company has hovercraft operating all over the world, including four in the Canadian Coast Guard, said its Vancouver, British Columbia, spokesman, John McGrath.

The King Cove model is the newest version of a 24-year-old design, McGrath said, but is unique because of its vehicle ramp and passenger cabin. The Seattle boat-builder Kvichak Marine Industries will build it, with delivery expected in 2006, a Kvichak spokesman said.

The hovercraft has an aluminum hull surrounded by a heavy skirt. Two big Detroit diesel engines power a set of fans that lift the vessel off the ground. Two additional engines drive 12-foot-diameter fans on the stern that push it at more than 50 mph. Like a helicopter, the vessel can lift off and spin around without moving forward or back.

Unlike a traditional ferry, a hovercraft doesn't need to go out of service for maintenance, McGrath said. It can run temporarily on any three of its four engines and comes with two spare motors, he said.

The real beauty, he said, is that "you can go over anything," including ice and steep waves. The hovercraft is expected to cross Cold Bay in 15 to 20 minutes. It will have a terminal and hangar on the King Cove side and another terminal just minutes from the Cold Bay airport. With its bow ramp, an ambulance or trucks and passenger vehicles can drive on and off.

The borough doesn't know how it will pay for the fuel, crew, insurance and upkeep, or even who will operate the hovercraft, Juettner said. It's unclear how many people will ride on it or whether the seafood industry will use it to move fresh fish from King Cove to Anchorage.

One thing is for certain, he said: "It isn't a money-maker. Like any form of public transportation, it's going to require a subsidy. We knew that up front."

Preliminary planning suggests the hovercraft will make one run a day but will be available for extra and emergency runs. Passenger and freight fares to Cold Bay will have to be less than airfare, Juettner said. "We're going to try to be competitive."

One hope is that the seafood industry will use the craft to ship more fresh halibut, salmon, crab and cod to Anchorage. If only a fraction of the 3 million pounds of seafood processed in King Cove annually were diverted onto airplanes and sold fresh instead of being canned or frozen, he said, the vessel's finances would improve.

An economic study said the hovercraft will require at least $220,000 a year, and maybe as much as $300,000 a year, in supplemental funding from a borough whose nonschool budget is about $5 million a year, Juettner said.

But even that is an acceptable cost for the improved access to medical care, he said. "It's not a disaster if the borough has to absorb that."

King Cove's mayor said residents will use the hovercraft if it's cheaper and more convenient than flying, though he added that flying has drawbacks other than cost.

"You get a roller-coaster ride 90 percent of the time," Mack said. "And emotionally it's hard on some people. If you're not flying, your kids or parents are." After the flight leaves, he said, "You run to the phone and wait for a call that says the flight was all right."

But to Mack and others, including Murkowski, the hovercraft represents a stop-gap measure that falls short of the community's real need and desire: a road through the refuge.

"The governor is still a very strong supporter of a road," and considers it a "life safety issue," said his spokeswoman, Becky Hultberg. "People have a right to safe transportation."

The new road, hovercraft and terminals approved when Murkowski was a U.S. senator are improvements, she said, "But it's a short-term fix."

The governor has asked the state Department of Natural Resources to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a land trade that would pave the way for a King Cove-Cold Bay road, she said.

That could take years, Hultberg acknowledged, which makes the hovercraft a good interim solution. But, she added, "It is the not the final fix."

Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at jgay@adn.com or at 257-4310.