FAIRBANKS — The Nenana Native Association has been awarded a  $9.1 million grant to complete a bridge project in the town of Nenana, about 55 miles southwest of Fairbanks. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Tuesday announced 2018’s Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Developments grants. 

According to the grant’s project description, the project will construct two permanent fixed bridges over the Nenana River and Nenana Slough, thereby providing year-round access between 10th Avenue in Nenana and the Nenana-Totchaket Resource Area. 

The resource area includes as much as 900,000 acres of agricultural land, Tanana Valley State Forest resources, University of Alaska land and the Nenana Gas Basin exploration area.

During public comment Tuesday at Nenana’s monthly assembly meeting, Donald Charlie, Nenana Native Association’s second chief, broke the news about the grant.

“Mr. Mayor, assembly, I came here today to make an announcement ... The bridge project is moving forward,” Charlie said. 

Documents announcing the award do not provide any timetable or stipulations for work. Neither the U.S. DOT nor Nenana Native Association responded to requests for comment. 

According to DOT’s grant announcement, “The project improves economic competitiveness and quality of life by providing year-round access ... reducing both travel time and cost of transporting people and goods across the waterways, both of which are important for a rural, tribal community.” 

During Nenana’s assembly meeting, Mayor Joshua Verhagen called the grant a long-awaited miracle. He said he expects the bridge to “provide many good things to Nenana, including potential economic development.”

Verhagen explained that the city will work in conjunction with the Native association but will not be involved with grant management. Nenana owns the right of way and permits, and will own the bridge when it’s complete, Verhagen said.  

Attempts to provide year-round access to the Nenana-Totchaket Resource Area date back to the early 1980s. Currently, access is restricted to boats in the summer or an ice bridge in the winter. An 11-mile public road exists in the resource area with plans to eventually extend the road to 28 miles. 

In 2012, renewed attempts to build a bridge began in earnest when the city of Nenana was awarded the first of two state of Alaska grants totaling $9.5 million.

The grants funded construction of giant, cast-concrete girders that now are near the Nenana river and began the process of driving pilings to support the bridge. But, by 2016, the city had exhausted grant funds, and the project stalled. 

Additionally, administration of the grants is clouded due to Nenana not completing state-, city- and grant-required financial audits. 

“The grantee is consistently late with reporting and projects have been inactive for an extended period of time,” according to a May 2018 report detailing Nenana’s fiscal problems.

Fred Parady, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, requested the report. 

Former Nenana Mayor Jason Mayrand administered the two grants. Mayrand was mayor for more than 16 years, during which time the municipality racked up more than $750,000 in debt to public and private entities.

The Alaska State Troopers Financial Crimes Unit is investigating Nenana’s finances, and, in June, executed a search warrant looking for “records of malfeasance.” 

State officials have said they have no information that any of the grant funds were misused but acknowledged that, without financial audits, it may be impossible to know for sure. 

A second rural Alaska community was awarded a 2018 BUILD Grant. Emmonak received $23.1 million for repairs and upgrades to a regional port and service roads. 

Emmonak is a small community in western Alaska on the Yukon River delta. 

The project will repair and upgrade about 3.5 miles of high-use service roads as well as construct a permanent landing craft ramp and dock with as many as two berths capable of handling 500-ton barges. 

Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcity.