An ambitious plan to develop agricultural land west of Nenana is on hold until the town can find another $5 million to complete work build a bridge across the Nenana River.
Jason Mayrand scampers over a rock pile on the eastern bank of the Nenana River on a recent afternoon and points to a row of steel pilings hammered into the riverbottom near opposite bank, about 400 feet away.
“This is the long span,” said Mayrand, Nenana’s mayor. “This is the expensive span.”
That’s where work stopped last year on a project to build a 14-mile road to access lands west of the river for agricultural development. Mayrand and other local officials have for decades been pursuing the project, which he says would give a huge boost to the area’s economy.
“There’s hundreds of thousands of acres of ag land out there,” he said, “There’s a lot of property.”
Mayrand says Nenana spent about $3 million on the project for design and other preliminary work before getting $6.5 million in 2012 from a statewide transportation bond package. The money paid for improvements to the gravel road that leads to and from the river and construction of a small bridge across a nearby slough. But the mayor says the town ran out of money for the project last fall, soon after work began on a big bridge to span the main river channel.
“We had originally budgeted this project years before it got funded,” he said. “And the expenses have slowly climbed up over time, just due to the economy and some other things that have come up. The price of fuel has gone up, the price of insurance has gone up, the price of materials has gone up, labor has gone up… ”
Mayrand says it’ll take another $5 million to finish the bridge.
“We’re still pursuing extra sources of funding to finish the project,” he said, “but the state has no money, the feds have no money. There aren’t grant opportunities like there used to be. So, we’re doing the best we can with what we have.”
The bridge is part of Totchaket Resource Development Corridor Access project, which Nenana officials estimated would cost $17 million. Mayrand says city officials requested only $6.5 million from the bond package because they’d been trying to keep costs low and because they assumed more funding would follow once the state started selling land opened up by the project.
“Y’know, we’ve had inquiries from even farmers in the Lower 48 that’ve flown to Alaska to look at the land because they’re interested in farming it,” he said.
A state Agriculture Division official who’s been working with the city on the project since 2008 agrees there’s still a lot of interest in the land. But Dan Proulx says the state won’t try to sell much of it until after the bridge is built.
“With no bridge, it’s going to be really hard to sell 40 or 50 lots, or parcels, encompassing 10,000 acres,” he said. “But if the bridge goes in, we can have a much larger sale.”
Proulx says the state Agriculture Division director would decide whether to sell land. He added that much of the ag lands west of Nenana is unsurveyed and unappraised. And he says the state’s fiscal crisis makes it unlikely it’ll pay the costs of ferrying surveyors and appraisers into and out of the area by boat or aircraft.
“… So basically, the cost of preparing it (the land) is exponentially larger without a bridge,” he said.
Longtime Nenana-area farmer Sven Ebbeson says he’s seen this problem many times. He says it’s one of the biggest obstacles to promoting the ag industry in Alaska.
“One of the problems has been with agriculture parcels has been that the land has been sold without developing the infrastructure that you need for farming – including access roads and so on,” Ebbeson said.
It’s an all-too-common problem, says Katherine Eldemar, director of the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs.
“It’s like anything in Alaska – building the infrastructure is something that is painfully neglected,” she said.
Eldemar also says it’s unlikely the state will provide more funding for the bridge anytime soon. But she says her agency stands ready to help Nenana move ahead on the project.
Editor's note: This story was revised to clarify that the state Agriculture Division director makes decisions on whether to sell lands under the agency's juridiction.