It’s been four years since the road that created a loop around Bethel has been closed. Tundra Ridge Road-also known as the Polk Road-closed to the public when the Polk family blocked off their Native allotment. It has forced traffic to maneuver through town via a horse shoe shaped road system. The State has been in negotiations with the family to purchase the right of way, but Alaska Dept. of Transportation representatives say the process has been pushed back another year. Still, the State and the family are hopeful a resolution isn’t too far away.
DOT representative Morgan Merritt spoke to the Bethel city council on Aug. 28, telling them the project has been pushed back to 2014. That was news to council members, including Kent Harding.
“Last we heard it would be in February of 2013,” Harding said.
Merritt says the project has taken longer than expected mainly because of the lengthy process working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), who represents the property owners.
“We have had a problem with acquiring the right of way for that work, a portion of that work, that passes through a couple of Native allotments,” Merritt said.
But the Right of Way issue is an old one, said Mayor Joseph Klejka.
“It’s been four years and that’s way more than enough time for the BIA to get something done,” Klejka said.
Council member Mary Sattler, who joined the meeting over the phone, said the problem predates the closure four years ago. She referred to a 2003 letter signed by the state saying they were working on the Right of Way.
“That was nine years ago,” Sattler said. “To me it’s unacceptable to say that it’s going to be completed in 2014.”
The city has been told to stay out of negotiations, in a letter from the BIA and by the State.
“We were told this Spring that to stay out of it because it would be solved by this fall,” Klejka said. “That was the word from the State.”
Johann Mueller is DOT’s Right of Way Agent working on the project. He’s been negotiating with BIA and he told council that acquiring that right of way would be faster than pursuing an alternative road.
“You’re going to face the same issues,” Mueller said. “You still have allotments to go through, the EA to go through, you’re still going to have the design to go through, so you’re your just going to be starting the ball over again.”
EA’s are environmental assessments, one of the many processes required for any road in that area.
The Polk Family says they are closer to a resolution.
The family was unsatisfied with the road long before they closed it in 2008. It was never maintained properly and created deep muck holes every wet season. Earl Polk Jr., one of the four Polk brothers, says he helped pull out at least a hundred vehicles near his house.
“I got sick and tired of pushing them out to the point where I said, ‘Look at this, I’m completely covered in mud, I’m brushing my teeth with sand, and it’s just crazy. That’s got to stop’,” Polk said.
There has never been proper drainage along the road. One of the reasons is because no one officially owns it. The road has existed for decades to access H-Marker Lake used by float planes, but there’s no real record of it on paper. Proper right of ways were not acquired after Native allotments were set aside through the Alaska Native Settleement Act in 1971.
Earl Polk says the whole family wants the road open. He says they have to go further than anyone else in town to get where they’re going.
“There are ruts in the road that have literally opened up serious gullies in the road that make it basically impossible to cross over there,” Polk said.
The State acknowledges that before re-opening it, the road would need to be redesigned because of bad culverts and other needed upgrades.
The strip of Polk property in question is about a quarter of a mile long and about 30 feet wide. The Polk family is willing to sell it to the state, if the price is fair. That’s been a sticking point in the past. When talks first began the family says they were offered 3.5 cents a square foot, which was offensive to the family.
“At first, because there was anger involved, we were going to shoot for the high mark, which was, you know, over a hundred thousand [dollars],” Polk said. “And then it went down, we said, okay, let’s negotiate a little bit, between the brothers, so that what [we] came up with was a fair amount.”
The exact amount is under wraps as the deal isn’t complete yet.
Polk says they never wanted it to take years.
“It has caused a lot of, unfortunately, a lot of bad feelings between us and people we grew up with,” Polk said. “For me, I know, and for my brothers, we would just like to get it done and over with and move on.”
Meanwhile, Bethel city council says it’s a safety and economic issue and needs a resolution soon. Mayor Klejka directed the city to write a letter to the Congressional Delegation and State administration about the issue.
During the council meeting, Merritt repeatedly stressed the long process of working with the BIA. He says it’s not the state’s only project that has been held up for this length of time.
“Unfortunately, the acquisition of the right of way, regarding a Native allotment, is a very special problem,” Merritt said.
In the meantime, Bethel residents will continue to drive the horse shoe around town, until a final resolution is reached.