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First phase of Cape Blossom Road construction set to start this fall

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High grocery prices are nothing new in rural Alaska. With many communities off the road system, they have few options for bringing in goods, and those options often come at high  cost to consumers. 

The city of Kotzebue is hoping a new road project will help bring prices down in the community. But a big piece of that solution is still up in the air. 

In Kotzebue, most commercial goods are either flown in, or they are transferred from large cargo vessels onto smaller vessels that can come into town. It’s a process called lightering. 

“Typical lighterage distance in order to barge into Kotzebue is approximately 15 miles depending on water levels,” said Jonathan Hutchison, project manager with the state Department of Transportation. “This of course adds a significant cost to any materials brought in the community. The community sees the high cost directly, with the high cost of living.”

For more than a decade, the city of Kotzebue has been planning to establish a deep-water port facility out at Cape Blossom, about 11 miles south of Kotzebue.  A new road to the port would allow goods to be delivered to town, without the lightering fee. 

Hutchinson says constructing that road comes at a pretty hefty cost.

“To construct the entire 11 miles is roughly $55 million give or take,” Hutchinson said.

The project is being funded through the Federal Highway Administration, with a small matching contribution from the city of Kotzebue and other local entities. 

Hutchinson says the first part, which begins construction this fall, will start at the southern part of Kotzebue. 

“A 4.6-mile road extending from Ted Stevens Way down to Sadie Creek, where the road for stage 1 will terminate,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson says the first stage will likely wrap up construction by fall of 2022. He says the project needs to secure more funding to build the rest of the road, which would also involve building a bridge over Sadie Creek. Currently, Congressman Don Young has submitted a request for $19 million in funding from the House Appropriations Committee.

Even if the road is complete, it’s far from certain that a deep water port will be built at Cape Blossom. A 2019 feasibility study for the port project from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was terminated last year. The termination notice cited increased coastal erosion at the site. 

Hutchinson says that it’s still possible to get a barge to the end of Cape Blossom, without a port.  He also believes completing the road would build momentum to getting a formal port facility in place.

“The project can move forward with or without a completed port project,” Hutchinson said. “And, I think in addition, having a road in place, if it’s able to move forward before the port is identified, would support both studying and constructing any type of port project that’ll square off with it.”

The Department of Transportation is set to provide an update on the Cape Blossom Road project during the next Northwest Arctic Borough Assembly meeting at the end of the month.