Alaska's 'bridges to nowhere'

Key lawmakers want to start building a $2 billion bridge to boost development, prompting battle over pork.

Staring from metropolitan Anchorage into Cook Inlet, the far shoreline across Knik Arm seems a world away.

Inhabiting this natural moat, beluga whales surface at high tide. Moose and brown bears trail the willowy lowlands. Bald eagles are as common as blue jays in the lower 48.

Today, motorists can't drive directly to the tiny hamlet of Port MacKenzie from here, but that could change, courtesy of US taxpayers. Two Alaska Republicans with clout in Congress, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, are pushing for funds that could send the Anchorage suburbs leapfrogging into those hinterlands.

The proposed $2 billion Knik Arm Bridge - one of several projects that could make Alaska the biggest winner in this year's transportation-bill sweepstakes - has stirred outrage from critics who see it as pork-barrel spending that will send federal deficits spiraling up. Some call it "the Big Dig of the Far North," a reference to Boston's overbudget tunnel project.

Now, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and others intend to launch a Senate-floor battle dismissing this project, and plans for a $175 million sister bridge near Ketchikan, as "bridges to nowhere."

The fight highlights how reauthorization of the massive transportation bill - which will set the nation's highway agenda through 2009 - has become the subject of intense debate amid rising federal budget deficits.

President Bush has vowed to veto any federal transit spending over $256 billion. Yet the Senate proposal is $318 billion, and Rep. Young's House proposal once stood at $375 billion.

In the political parlaying, critics claim that Alaska - large in land, small in citizen numbers, and fifth in transportation dollars - wields disproportionate clout. This year, it could win twice as much highway money as New Jersey. Beyond transportation, Alaska receives seven federal dollars for each tax dollar sent to the US Treasury.

Like many lawmakers, Young has boasted that he wouldn't be doing his job if he wasn't bringing home the bacon to constituents. (Neither he nor Senator Stevens responded to requests to be interviewed for this story.)

"There are 435 members of [the House] and virtually every one of them has submitted proposals for transportation projects," says Steven Hansen, a Capitol Hill staffer who works for Young on the house Transportation Committee and defends his boss's zeal for bridges.

America loses $70 billion due to workers' long hours in traffic, lost productivity, and wasted gas, Mr. Hansen says. Many of the 42,000 annual highway fatalities, he says, are related to safety problems that road improvements could ameliorate.

As Young sees it, the highway bill also is an investment that will trickle down to local economies, creating thousands of new jobs nationally. It will open his home state to more natural resource development, which could create jobs while worrying environmentalists.

But to Keith Ashdown of the nonprofit government watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), the highway-spending logic is flawed. "What we're seeing is that it doesn't matter how important your project is as far as serving a legitimate public need. What's most important is whether you have a politician with ties to the transportation committee."

A TCS analysis shows the average lawmaker wins $14 million worth of highway projects, while members of the Senate and House Transportation Committees pull in about $40 million each - some far more. On the House side, Jim Oberstar (D) of Minnesota got $90 million in projects and minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California was awarded $120 million. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) pulled in $160 million, and Young of Alaska, the committee chair, lined up $590 million - surpassing many states with 20 times its population. Unrepentant, Young has said he'd "be ashamed of himself" if he hadn't delivered spoils to Alaska, which relies on federal subsidies for its transportation infrastructure.

No highway spending is more controversial than bridge work. Senator McCain points with incredulity to a $200 million earmark being sought by Young for the Knik Arm Bridge (a down payment on a cost that could reach 10 times that much) and to the $175 million Alaska is attempting to secure for the sister project, a span that would connect Ketchikan with Gravina, home to only a few hundred people.

One impetus, rarely mentioned, is that the bridge would create an easy route for timber companies to log Pacific rain forest.

"If you look at the Big Dig tunnel project in Boston, which was considered the poster child of embarrassment as far as federal transportation boondoggles," says Ashdown, "it will end up appearing to be a great deal if the Gravina and Knik Arm bridges are built."

Alaska, Ashdown continues, isn't the only haven for controversial pork-barrel bridges. Every state has a bridge it is peddling. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a half-dozen proposals to replace historic bridges in America's heartland are unnecessary. Richard Moe, the trust's president, noted that federal highway engineers are seeking to replace Kansas's Amelia Earhart Bridge for $54 million - while the old one can be rehabilitated for as little as $10 million.

As in Alaska, dozens of the proposed bridge projects would benefit only a small number of people. In sleepy Rulo, Neb., pop. 191, the state wants to spend $25 million to double the size of an old bridge on a rural highway.

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