How pet projects in Alaska became pet peeve on Hill

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.

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.

In a city dominated by cookie-cutter condos and sprawling McMansion subdivisions, Government Hill is a throwback. Architectural masterpieces mix with refurbished Quonset huts and old-fashioned cabins. Its location on a bluff above downtown Anchorage gives it a microclimate warm enough for local gardeners such as Pease to grow apples, cherries, and other delicacies rarely found in Alaska.

The social atmosphere is also warm. Government Hill denizens were invited recently to a celebratory picnic thrown by a pair of newlyweds and, Pease says, residents are known to barter garden produce for salmon.

"It's one of the few neighborhoods in Anchorage that has a real neighborhood feel to it," says Stephanie Kesler, president of the Government Hill Community Council.

The Knik Arm Bridge idea, too, has a long history, proposed in various forms since the 1950s, with boosters even then claiming Anchorage lacked sufficient space for development.

Justifications abound.

The "world-wide recognition which would accompany the construction of this unique and monumental project would certainly be valuable to the State of Alaska," said a 1972 study prepared for the state Department of Highways.

A state that inspires grand thinking

Such thinking may have spurred other mega-projects once embraced by state leaders but never realized. They have had plans to:

•Drop hydrogen bombs to carve out a deepwater port off northwest Alaska.

•Erect a domed city near Mount McKinley.

•Gouge a Bering Strait railroad tunnel to Russia.

•Hook up a water pipeline to California.

"We live in a grand state, and it inspires grand thinking, which can be a good thing until you take it to extremes. And then it gets a little ridiculous," says bridge opponent Emily Ferry, coordinator of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project in Juneau.

Like the Knik Arm project, the Gravina Island bridge has generated opposition from locals on more than fiscal grounds.

The bridge would link Ketchikan, population 7,700, to the island that holds the local airport and about 50 residents, now served by a ferry. It would be nearly as long as California's Golden Gate Bridge and tall enough to allow large cruise ships to pass beneath.

It would also open wild Gravina Island to timber cutting and other ecologically damaging development, critics say. They describe it as a multimillion-dollar logging road.

That doesn't faze proponents, who cite the need for resource development.

In response to withering public scorn, Congress stripped the earmarks for the bridges. But lawmakers gave Alaska the money for general transportation spending. Despite expressing misgivings, the state legislature allocated about $93 million from federal grants for the Knik Arm Bridge and about $91 million for the Gravina Bridge in this year's capital budget.

"I can't think of any bridge anywhere in the country that doesn't have a combination of both commercial as well as private uses," said Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) last month after signing a capital budget that includes money for both bridges.

Funding stream complicated by Congress

But a bill pending in Congress would prevent the state from spending those or any future federal dollars on either project. And the national embarrassment the bridges have caused the state may have sapped some political will to proceed.

Bottom line: It's not clear whether either project will be completed.

To secure other funding sources, the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority has new power to sell revenue bonds, thanks to separate legislation signed into law by Governor Murkowski. Skeptics say the authority's cost estimate of $600 million will be sorely tested.

The bridge also faces regulatory and permitting hurdles.

Government agencies are currently drafting the requisite environmental studies. The US Army Corps of Engineers has already blasted preliminary environmental studies as woefully inadequate. That is, in large part, because there has been an unsatisfactory justification for building the project at all, according to the Corps' critique.

Despite the backlash, bridge backers remain optimistic. On a sunny day last month at the public dock on the Anchorage side of Knik Arm, where he held a ceremony to sign the revenue-bond bill, Murkowski predicted that when Alaskans start driving over the bridge they will wonder how they ever managed without it.

"And people will say, 'Why didn't they make a four-lane or a six-lane out of it?' " said Murkowski, as fighter jets from a nearby military base and a bald eagle flew overhead. "The critics will say, 25 years from now, 'Why didn't you widen it?' "

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