Bridge-supporting 'nobodies' fight on

Opponents of 'bridges to nowhere' say the state should just forget about it

Posted: Sunday, January 15, 2006

Forgive the people of Ketchikan if they're feeling a bit insecure.

The 13,000 residents of the rainy Southeast Alaska town and its outlying areas are sick of being the butt of jokes and ridiculed throughout the nation because of a $328 million project that, under the banner "The Bridge to Nowhere," has become a symbol of wasteful government spending.

Bridge opponents within Alaska abound, most of whom say the state should forget about building new roads and focus instead on improving ferry service. However, many of Ketchikan's residents see the link to the sparsely populated Gravina Island as necessary to grow their economy and connect them to their airport.

The project has been on the backburner for 30 years, and they bristle at being the "nowhere" in that hated moniker now that there's a chance a bridge will finally be built.

"We are tired of seeing national media, politicians from other states and various groups malign Alaskans in general, and Ketchikan residents in particular, as second-class citizens," said Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein. "Now we're being maligned by the same media, politicians and organizations as nobodies from nowhere."

That nobody feeling could be a statewide epidemic, judging by Gov. Frank Murkowski's recently announced plan to hire a public relations firm to give Alaska a marketing makeover.

The governor says Alaska's national image has been beaten down by distorted views of Ketchikan's Gravina Island bridge project, plus Anchorage's own "nowhere" bridge - the $600 million Knik Arm Crossing - and the annual congressional rejection of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

His idea for a national PR campaign is to beat the drum that Alaska doesn't exist simply to milk federal taxpayers.

"Alaska does not just take. We give, and we have the capacity to give much, much more - if permitted to do so," Murkowski said in his State of the State Address earlier this week.

Whatever crisis of confidence Alaska's collective psyche has will have to be set aside over the next few months as the fight for the Ketchikan and Anchorage bridges shifts from the nation's capital to Alaska's.

Bowing to mounting pressure, Congress in November removed the earmarks designating more than $452 million in a federal transportation bill for the two bridges, but sent the money to Alaska to decide how to use it.

With Congress washing its hands of the matter, supporters of the bridges may have thought they'd have an easier time convincing the Alaska Legislature of their need. They were wrong.

Despite the governor's support of the projects, legislators are split, and it is they who will ultimately decide where the money goes.

Two committees have already held hearings on the bridges in the first week of the legislative session. If the early debate is any indication, Ketchikan's residents appear ready to channel their resentment into a renewed fight to build the bridge.

J.C. Conley, a Ketchikan auto parts store owner who has been a vocal proponent of the bridge, told lawmakers to dispel what they've heard about the bridge nationally and do their jobs. It would be a great thing to break ground this year, he said.

"The media has worked very hard to deny you guys the opportunity to represent us," Conley said.

The fate of the bridges won't be clear until a capital budget comes together, which typically happens late in the four-month session.

That hasn't stopped the issue from taking center stage now.

The opposition from those within the statehouse is much different from those outside who protest the bridges are an unnecessary waste of money.

First, there is the contention that the bridges will take up too big a chunk of the transportation money available for the state's long list of priorities. Lawmakers say some projects have been bumped off the new priority list and they blame the bridges.

Second, legislators from other parts of the state are worried the money for the bridges will siphon capital works money from their districts. In an election year, those politicians will be running their campaigns on the public works projects they can bring home.

However, state transportation officials say the bridge money is part of the National Highway System allocation and won't affect community road projects.

Finally, there is the money itself. With the earmarks gone, the $452 million is subject to an allocation formula. Just 48 percent will go to the state's National Highway System projects under the formula.

The amount drops even further with the Alaska Department of Transportation estimating only 85 percent of the money authorized by Congress will be appropriated.

Suddenly, that $452 million has been whittled down to $185 million.

That may be less of a problem for the mammoth Knik Arm bridge, which would divide the $600 million cost between federal, state and toll bond revenue. The smaller federal share means the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority will be coming to the state to make up the difference, though.

Ketchikan's Gravina bridge depends entirely on federal and state money to be built, which some lawmakers have said makes it the more vulnerable of the two projects if it comes down to a choice.

However, Alaska is in the midst of a boom year thanks to the high oil prices that its treasury relies on. Surplus estimates are now at $1.2 billion, which the governor proposes to split between education, a natural gas pipeline plan - and transportation projects.

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