Rerouting the bridges to nowhere

House Republicans were shamed into "compromise" on $454 million of bacon earmarked for Alaskan bridges -- but the pork just got recanned.

Published November 23, 2005 12:37PM (EST)

Oh, those poor Alaskan bridges. Following reports by Salon and other media last summer, the state's two proposed bridges to nowhere, which would serve sparsely populated areas for a $454 million federal price tag, have become synonymous with irresponsible pork barrel spending. Indeed, far beyond the remote towns they would connect, they've reached into the territory of political cartoons, late-night talk show monologues, and theatrical speeches on the floor of Congress. A pet project of Alaska Republicans Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, one 200-foot-high, mile-long bridge would connect Ketchikan, population 8,000, with Gravina Island, population 50. The other span, nicknamed "Don Young's Way" would cross an inlet, connecting Anchorage to a rural port.

Mandatory funding for the bridges was written into the 2006 federal transportation bill back in August, but by mid-November, after considerable outcry, Republicans on an appropriations subcommittee in the House stripped the funding for the bridges from the $286 billion bill. It was an attempt to kill the bridge plan -- and the embarrassing publicity it had attracted for a party that boasts of fiscal responsibility. Recent articles in the New York Times and USA Today referred to the move as a compromise. But that looks like a generous assessment: While Alaska is no longer required to spend the money on the bridges, it will still receive all of it (part of the $2.5 billion total awarded to the state in the bill), and can still build the two bridges if the state Legislature so decides.

And it looks possible that Alaska will do exactly that. Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski, himself a former U.S. senator, has repeatedly pledged his support to build both bridges. His own commissioner of transportation, Mike Barton, sits on the board of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, a public corporation working to build the bridge from Anchorage to the aforementioned rural port and nearby green and empty pastures of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Both bridges are included in the State Transportation Improvement Program, the Murkowski administration's transportation initiatives.

"In both of these instances, these bridges are absolutely necessary for continued growth. They're priority transportation projects," says Mike Chambers, Gov. Murkowski's press secretary. "These are the two areas where these two communities can grow and expand. We're still digging out from pre-statehood infrastructure starvation," Chambers adds, suggesting a prolonged case of federal neglect since 1958. (That's perhaps in spite of the fact that the 2006 transportation bill spends nearly $1,500 on every Alaskan, while spending only $86 per person on a national average.) Both Ketchikan and Anchorage are hemmed in by mountainous landscapes and have no path for growth except across the waterways, explains Chambers.

Meanwhile, advocates of the bridge project near Anchorage aren't too worried about losing funding. "There is fairly widespread support," says Henry Springer, an engineer and executive director of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority. "If I were a betting man, I would think there was sufficient support by the public that the governor and legislature are going to act in a responsible manner. I trust those people."

The recent maneuvering on Capitol Hill to drop the spending requirement for the two bridges is "mostly symbolic," says Stephen Slivinski of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. "It doesn't help the overall problem. It doesn't save any money or get at the root of the main issue." Slivinski says that spending requirements in federal legislation, known as earmarks, simply encourage politicians with greater clout in Washington to grab as big a share from the federal treasury as they can for constituents back home. The Alaska bridge plan, he says, is just the tip of the iceberg. "There are many other silly projects in other states, and those are going to remain intact. Maybe Stevens sees himself as a martyr in all of this. He's taking fire in order to save all the other earmarks."

Even so, his has become the most notorious, especially since Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast. While the two bridges had already achieved some notoriety prior to the transportation bill's passage, after Katrina hit, the notion of spending federal money on infrastructure that would serve so few in such a remote area struck many as outrageous. It sparked some rather dramatic infighting among Republicans.

In late October, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., attempted to divert money from the bridge projects in favor of repairing a hurricane-damaged bridge in New Orleans. Coburn said he was answering America's call to stop wasteful spending. This was apparently too much for Sen. Stevens, formerly chairman of the powerful appropriations committee. He threatened to quit in no uncertain terms, declaring he would become a "wounded bull on the floor of this Senate." If his colleagues passed the bill, he said, "I will be taken out of here on a stretcher."

His colleagues apparently didn't want to see Stevens laid out: Coburn's amendment failed 82-15. But the pressure didn't let up. Republican strategist Frank Luntz, sensing the need to traverse a major image pitfall, told House Republicans in early November that the bridges were indefensible and that in the face of low poll numbers they were going to have to answer questions about the "bridge to nowhere." Soon after, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., advocated legislation to reopen the highway bill, redirect 10 percent of the bill's funding to be used to offset hurricane recovery spending, and eliminate all federal earmarks. In a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, he singled out the bridges to nowhere as national jokes.

But although House Republicans finally conceded, Alaska will still receive all the funding originally promised. Its use could see some debate: Some state legislators, whose constituents live far from Anchorage or Ketchikan, say spending millions of dollars to construct the bridges could take money away from upgrading or building roads throughout the state. "I can tell you these [bridges] aren't priority projects of my mayors. I think they could give a rip about either one of them," says Gary Wilken, a Republican senator from Fairbanks, who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee. "They want to make sure we grow and have access for transportation infrastructure, just like the rest of the state, and the bridges be dammed."

But even if Alaska doesn't end up building the two bridges, the state could use the federal funds for a number of other contentious projects. Another favorite of the Murkowski administration is a plan to supplement existing ferry service with a $250 million, 50-mile road extension to connect Juneau, the state capital, with Skagway and the Klondike Highway into Canada. That project isn't exactly a study in cost effectiveness, either: By state law, the road, which would have to cross a national historic landmark and recreation area, can never actually reach its destination. Instead, it would stop 18 miles short of Skagway, at which point cars would then board another ferry to get to the town. Due to avalanche danger, the state's department of transportation has said the road would be closed for more than a month per year.

"It's essentially an extension of a dead-end road. It's as much if not more of a road to nowhere than the proposed bridges to nowhere," says Emily Ferry, coordinator of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project. "The Murkowski administration has made its priorities clear in the last few years, that they're after these mega-projects. The next few months will be really telling. We'll see if we have the foresight to spend the money on infrastructure for local communities, or if the Murkowski administration will prevail in promoting pork barrel projects."

By Rebecca Clarren

Rebecca Clarren writes from Portland, Ore.

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