Alaska editorial: Without earmarks, bridges lose appeal

Posted: Friday, January 20, 2006

This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

Can you hear that infectious sound of troops whistling "Colonel Bogey's March" from the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai?" What's that - it's fading here in Southcentral? That's because backers of the Knik Arm Crossing and the Ketchikan bridge to the airport on Gravina Island see their numbers dwindling and the competition increasing. They just might be whistling in the dark.

How long can their projects stand in the battle over competing needs? How much can Alaska afford to divert limited funds to the concrete-and-steel dreams?

Rep. Mike Hawker of Anchorage is the latest critic of the governor's plan to spend $184 million in federal transportation money as a down payment on the bridges. That's because Rep. Hawker sees painful opportunity costs in choosing the expensive bridges over more pressing needs, such as an improved and safer Seward Highway.

Rep. Hawker makes a simple case. Spending money on the bridges takes money away from projects such as the Seward Highway work, where a longtime Alaska couple was killed in the most recent of far too many fatalities on the busy highway.

Granted, these stretches of the Seward Highway are dangerous more because of bad driving than treacherous conditions. But for safety's sake, we try to build our roads to account for some of the worst drivers, and the highway between Bird and Potter still needs work.

If we keep spending money on the bridges, that work won't soon be done.

It's striking how enthusiasm for the bridges has waned since the marching orders from Washington changed. When the Alaska delegation had its earmarked way and the federal money had to go to the bridges, the projects had much more vocal and tacit support - some of it lukewarm, but most of the establishment had signed on. Now that we have a choice how to spend those same federal highway dollars, those bridges look a lot less compelling.

Both may yet be built. But both should wait their turn, until they make more sense against the rest of Alaska's transportation needs.

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