After 20 years, Sand Point finishes road with BIA partnership

PHOTO/James MacPherson/AJOC
construction.jpg Alvin Osterback is only half joking when he says managers selected for village road-building projects need to be young, because by the time construction is finished, they’re near retirement age.

Osterback, of the Qagan Tayagungin Tribe of Sand Point, was 20 years younger when the Federal Aviation Administration required the village to move its landfill away from the airport runway because birds feasting at the dump where often vying for the same airspace as airplanes.

It’s not road construction itself that takes tremendous time, but rather unraveling the red tape and garnering the cash, he said.

"It was one of those unfunded federal mandates many communities face,’’ said Osterback, who is in charge of road project.

A new dump was eventually built, but a 2.7-mile road was needed to get to it.

This month, after two decades of trying, the final touches are being put on the road and a 2.4-mile repaving project in town, 580 miles southwest of Anchorage.

The $6.8 million project was funded through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, under a federal law that allows tribes to build all or part of roads in their communities. Another $30 million in road and bridge projects are under way in Alaska, through the BIA partnership program.

After less than two years of construction, Sand Point has a community road, built with pride by the residents there, Osterback said.

As part of the partnership, the BIA provided the heavy equipment and a crew made up of two mechanics and a foreman, according to Dale Michaelson, BIA’s construction maintenance supervisor.

"We furnish the equipment and expertise,’’ Michaelson said. "They furnish the manpower.’’

And there were plenty people ready to work in Sand Point, where fishery closures and low salmon prices have devastated the town’s economy over the past few years, Osterback said.

About 60 of Sand Point’s 890 residents worked on the project, Osterback said. Workers, who are mostly Aleut, were taught how to run the heavy equipment -- excavators, loaders, dump trucks -- by the Qagan Tayagungin Tribe and the BIA. Workers were either trained on the job or sent to a BIA school in Oregon before construction.

Sand Point police did the testing for commercial drivers licenses. Workers were required to be tested for drug use.

The project wasn’t built on manpower alone.

"A lot of women worked,’’ Osterback said. "At one point, all of our drivers were women.’’

Workers were paid union-scale wages and given the opportunity to join a union, but did not due to the short duration of the project, Osterback said.

Workers in some communities with the BIA partnership do opt to join a union, said Michaelson, who has been working on road-building projects for the agency for the past 20 years.

The Sand Point road project was as difficult as they come, he said.

"It was a tough job, and logistics was the toughest part,’’ Michaelson said.

Shipping the heavy equipment to Sand Point from Anchorage cost several hundred thousand dollars, Michaelson said. "And, of course, we had to get it out.’’

Supplies and equipment are almost always bought in-state, Michaelson said. An exception on the Sand Point project was a new asphalt oil made in Sweden and Norway for cold climates.

Michaelson said Sand Point and other villages have produced some top-notch road builders.

"In my opinion, we build just as good a road -- if not better -- than anybody else,’’ Michaelson said.

Too often, Osterback said, contractors come to the Bush for construction projects and "hire a couple of flaggers at most.’’

"I encourage other communities to go with a BIA partnership,’’ Osterback said. "It’s amazing to see how the community is uplifted and changed.’’

Sand Point got much more than a road, as the additional income helped greatly and raised morale in this once thriving fishing community, he said.

"People painted their houses, got vehicles fixed and took care of medical problems they’d been putting off,’’ said Osterback, adding that the economic upshot ripples beyond the Bush.

"Whatever is felt in the Bush is felt in Anchorage,’’ Osterback said.

"It’s a big boost to villages,’’ Michaelson said of BIA road-building projects. "You can really see a difference from the time we go in to the time we leave. People upgraded their homes and vehicles. It’s a good feeling, really.’’

Several folks from Sand Point have landed jobs in other communities, namely Amchitka, where work is under way cleaning up a government nuclear underground testing site.

Even though the project took more than two decades to complete, Osterback said he wishes there was more road work to do at Sand Point.

"It’s done a lot of us a lot of good and given us the economic shot in the arm that we need until fishing gets better," Osterback said. "I just wish we had the project for another year."

07/09/2001 - 8:00pm