You can't kill a dead bridge

Yes, Sarah Palin pulled the plug on the "Bridge to Nowhere." But it was already finished by the time she got to it.

Published September 8, 2008 6:01PM (EDT)

Let's get a couple of things straight about John McCain's newest ad and, for that matter, about his running mate. Yes, Sarah Palin was, technically, the person to put the final nail in the coffin of the "Bridge to Nowhere" last fall. Apparently that was a prime reason she got picked for the Republican ticket -- McCain liked that the same Alaska Republicans who are angry at him were also angry at her.

But the implication coming from Palin and McCain is that in doing so, she saved U.S. taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. "I told the Congress 'thanks, but no thanks,' for that Bridge to Nowhere," Palin said at the Republican convention last week. "If our state wanted a bridge, we'd build it ourselves." McCain's ad says, "She stopped the Bridge to Nowhere" (with some dramatic music behind the narration that makes it sound like McCain and Palin are running for the newest slots in the Legion of Super Heroes, not the White House).

That's not actually how it happened, though. Nearly two years before Palin acted, Congress had already decided the federal government wouldn't pay for the bridge. But Alaska would still get the $229 million that had been earmarked for the project. By the time Palin took office and "killed" the bridge in September 2007, she knew that if she didn't, the state would be on the hook for the whole bill, and Alaska wouldn't get the massive windfall to spend on... well, whatever other transportation boondoggles it wanted to fund. She did officially spike the project, but it was basically already finished. Since the federal government was going to pay for almost the entire cost of the project, once Congress removed the earmark, Palin didn't have much choice. "It wasn't really a bold move when she did it," bridge opponent Lois Epstein, with the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, told PolitiFact. Not to mention, of course, that Palin supported the bridge during her 2006 campaign for governor, and only came around to opposing it and scaling back the state's earmark requests when it became clear the bridge was hurting Alaska's image in Washington and around the country.

McCain's campaign doesn't even seem to be paying attention to these details. Defending the ad Monday morning, spokesman Brian Rogers sent reporters a memo about the bridge project. "After taking office and examining the project closely, Governor Palin consistently opposed funding the 'Bridge to Nowhere' and ultimately canceled the wasteful project," Rogers wrote, glossing over exactly how long it took for her to examine the project closely. "She stopped it." But the memo cites the PolitiFact articles that make it clear that Palin was just bowing to the reality that the bridge was already dead. Never mind that, though. In John McCain's world, Sarah Palin is a maverick reformer who fought wasteful spending. In the world the rest of us live in, that's not so clear. (Note: Carly Fiorina would probably say this post is sexist, because it criticizes Palin's record, but Salon is willing to live with that risk.)

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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