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Audit criticizes Gravina spending

Despite stopping 'Bridge to Nowhere,' Palin had approved building highway on island

Posted: Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A legislative audit has concluded that the state Department of Transportation should not have begun construction of a new highway on Ketchikan's Gravina Island, site of the controversial "Bridge to Nowhere."

The state's Division of Legislative Audit reviewed the project at the request of the Legislature, and concluded that the work done on the project was "not in the public's best interest."

The effort to come up with a new connection between Revillagigedo Island, on which Ketchikan is located, and Gravina Island, on which its airport is located, has been underway for 30 years.

It began gaining national notoriety when the project, officially called the "Gravina Access Project," was dubbed the "Bridge to Nowhere" by interest groups opposed to Congressional earmarks several years ago.

After costs climbed to an estimated $400 million, opponents in 2005 managed to get most of the earmarks lifted, though the money was directed to Alaska anyway.

The bridge's prominence rose even further when former Gov. Sarah Palin denounced both it and earmarks at the 2008 Republican National Convention, where she received the Republican vice-presidential nomination.

In a convention speech that helped make her a political star, Palin claimed to have said "thanks, but no thanks" for the earmarked money.

In fact, Palin had actually cited the project's growing cost and the inability of the Alaska delegation to obtain more earmarks for the project as her reason for stopping the bridge at the time.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, requested the legislative audit last year. He and Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, represent Ketchikan and criticized Palin's cancellation of the project.

Stedman blamed "bureaucratic process within DOT" for stalling the bridge.

"This audit will give the public a fresh look at how their money has been managed on this important infrastructure project," he said.

Despite the fact that the project has received substantial federal and state appropriations, bridge construction never began, he said.

Instead, the Palin administration's Department of Transportation spent $26 million of the federal appropriations to build a road to where a bridge might go.

The legislative audit concluded the money was legally spent, but questioned the decision to build a highway to a road that ends at the southern end of Gravina Island, when it is uncertain whether a bridge will be constructed at that location.

"The decision to proceed with the highway construction in May 2007 was not in the public's best interest given the lack of congressional financial support for the bridges and the significant increase in estimated cost," the audit concluded.

Staff for Stedman and Johansen each said they were in meetings Monday, and neither returned phone calls.

Lois Epstein of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, a critic of the Ketchikan bridge, said she was not surprised about the auditor's conclusions.

"It just officially validated that it was a mistake" to begin work on the highway to the non-existent bridge, she said.

It is not clear why Palin allowed work to begin on the road when it remains uncertain what will be done to provide better access to Gravina Island, Epstein said.

Epstein said it is possible that the money expended on the road will have to be returned to the Highway Trust Fund if it is not eventually used to improve access to Gravina Island, but typically such reimbursements are diverted from future funds allocated to the state.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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