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How pet projects in Alaska became pet peeve on Hill

By Yereth RosenCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 2006


Thomas Pease's flower-scented backyard might seem to be an odd place for a battle over federal spending. But the Government Hill neighborhood he calls home has become a front in the fight against pet projects in Congress.

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That's because land just a block from Mr. Pease's home could be ripped apart if plans for a major bridge proceed. Officially, it's called the Knik Arm Crossing. But the US public knows it by a different name: the "bridge to nowhere." And ever since it drew headlines last fall, it's become a poster child for congressional earmarks.

Earmarks are items that lawmakers on Capitol Hill tuck into spending bills to fund projects back home. Supporters call it investment. Critics call it "pork." Both call it one of the biggest issues in American politics this year.

"I couldn't believe our little neighborhood fight was actually going national," says Pease, an elementary schoolteacher who opposes the bridge plan. "But I certainly thought the name was appropriate."

Actually, the "bridge to nowhere" refers to two bridges. One is the Knik Arm Crossing, which would connect Alaska's largest city with a little-used port on the other side of a glacier-fed channel that drains into the Pacific. The other is a span that would link Ketchikan, Alaska, to sparsely populated Gravina Island. They initially received earmarks of $231 million and $223 million in last year's transportation-funding bill.

The moniker resonated across the nation last fall and spurred a revolt – both in public and in the halls of Congress – against wasteful federal spending. "Those three words changed the view of millions of how we spend money on a federal level," says the man who coined the phrase, Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington watchdog group.

Spans divide Alaska

Even in Alaska, which leads the nation in per-capita pork-barrel spending, locals were divided over the merits of the projects. In a December survey of Anchorage residents by pollster Ivan Moore, 46 percent opposed the Knik Arm Crossing, while 44 percent favored it. When told that the earmark was removed and that the state could spend the money on any transportation project, a stronger majority – 56 percent – wanted to use the money elsewhere. "It's obviously not a high priority," Mr. Moore says.

Supporters defend the bridge as economically vital to Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the fastest-growing district in Alaska. Alaska has as much right to a large bridge as any other state, they say.

"The Golden Gate was a bridge to nowhere. Mackinac back in Michigan was a bridge to nowhere,'" says former Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch, chairman of the state-funded Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, the organization overseeing bridge plans. "This is not a bridge to nowhere. These are the two fastest-growing populations of this state."

Alaska's veteran Sen. Ted Stevens (R), a legend for his ability to funnel federal funds home, has argued that critics fail to grasp the bridge's historic mission.

"What they forget was that in the Western movement of the country, if the people who were paying the taxes at that time said it was wasteful to build roads to the West we would have never had the West," he told Anchorage reporters last year, as criticism of the bridges crescendoed.

Proponents, who hope the Knik Arm Crossing will be built by 2010, say it will open up new, lower-cost land needed for development. Already, speculators have started buying property on the other side of Knik Arm, where the bridge is expected to deliver traffic.

But skeptics here say the project would promote sprawl and, with a cost estimate of between $600 million and $2 billion, it would divert resources from revitalizing Anchorage itself. Routing traffic to this spot in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is impractical, they add, because it's not near population centers. Critics also worry about the effect on beluga whales and other wildlife.

View from Government Hill

In Government Hill, Anchorage's oldest neighborhood, the bridge debate is about more than budgets. Locals fear the planned access road for the bridge would ruin the quality of life, bringing traffic, congestion, and general degradation.

"At the risk of sounding like a radical, there's something undemocratic about having to defend your home from the government," Pease says.