Crews excavate a steep section of the Katlian Bay Road in 2021. The project was bonded for $14 million in 2012, awarded at $31.8 million in 2019, and could need millions more for completion, according to Sen. Bert Stedman. The senator’s other observation: “They should have built it along the water.” (KCAW/Katherine Rose)

The Katlian Bay Road in Sitka is behind schedule and over budget, and will need an infusion of cash to get across the finish line.

Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman says the legislature has appropriated enough money to complete the Katlian project – and several others across the state – but the road still may serve as a cautionary tale about the reality of construction along Southeast Alaska’s rugged coastline.

Note: Sen. Bert Stedman represents Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell, Ketchikan, and surrounding communities in the Alaska State Senate. He sat down recently with KCAW News to discuss a range of issues enacted in the 2023 state budget, and to share his thoughts on local concerns, like the construction of a marine haul out in Sitka.

The nine-mile extension of the Sitka road system was budgeted at just under $32-million in 2019, but it’s had its share of problems.

“In my personal opinion, they should have built it on the waterline like they did Sawmill Creek (Road),” said Sen. Bert Stedman, “and instead they put it halfway up the hill, and that leads to a lot of design and construction costs increases.”

Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee. He’s championed the project as far back as 2012, when it was approved by voters in a statewide bond package. 

The road connects lands owned by Shee Atiká Inc., Sitka’s urban Native Corporation, at the head of Katlian Bay. K&E Alaska was awarded the project in the spring of 2019, with a proposed completion date in the fall of 2022.

Stedman says they’re not going to make it.

“They’re moving faster, things are improving and have been for several months,” said Stedman. “And the crew is working hard, but it’s hard on equipment. It’s difficult. It’s dangerous. And it should have been built on along the water.”

Stedman says it’s fortunate that the state tipped into surplus in June, driven by high oil prices that everywhere else but Alaska tend to be bad news. He says the legislature was able to allocate $30 million to complete the Katlian road and some other projects around the state – and Katlian may take up to half of that pot.

How is that fortunate? If the price of oil had not spiked, and if it were another cash-strapped year in state government, Stedman says the Department of Transportation (DOT) may have had to close out the Katlian contract, and re-bid it in the future. Stedman thinks that may have cost more than it saved, just in demobilizing and then remobilizing the construction team.

“That was one of the points I made to DOT, that we’re better off to fix it,” said Stedman. “Fix the design issue now, move forward and finish it, rather than to stop it and come back in a year or two. It’s going to cost us at least $5 million plus inflation (to demobilize). So this is actually — believe it or not — the low cost alternative in my opinion.”

Stedman is clearly frustrated with the project which – on paper – doesn’t appear extraordinarily challenging: Just a nine-mile, single-lane gravel road with turnouts. “It’s no glorified I-5, or even Halibut Point Road,” Stedman says. But he absolutely wants it to be completed, and to be usable. He doesn’t really have a role to play there; rather, the state’s engineers and the contractor will huddle to come up with a way to finish the road. 

The big takeaway, Stedman believes, might be the lessons the DOT has learned from working in challenging topography, similar to that proposed for other projects. And the danger can’t be overstated: the Katlian project has already claimed one life.

“With the difficulty of building Katlian, up on that hillside, and you take that same concept and you go north to Juneau and the Lynn Canal,” Stedman said. “I would be very, very concerned if they were going to try to build a road up Lynn Canal, and what it would actually cost us in the end. Because looking at Katlian, it’s significantly more than anticipated. And Lynn Canal, I don’t know what magnitude difficulty increase it is over Katlian, but it’s significant.”

Stedman considers the project to be roughly 80-percent complete, but there are still bridges to construct across the Katlian River and estuary. He’d like to see the road eventually extended across the head of the bay to Alaska Mental Health Trust lands in Cedar Cove. But, Stedman says, “I’m 66 and this (the Katlian Bay Road) has taken over ten years, so I may not be the one doing it.”