State projects win $112 million

Federal money would go to ferry authority, trolley, bus stop, trails and railroad

Posted: Monday, February 04, 2002

Seward would get its bus stop and trolley. Palmer, its pedestrian trail.

Southeast Alaska's fledgling Inter-island Ferry Authority would get $10 million in support. And the Alaska Railroad would get more than $20 million in federal funds to keep it on track.

In all, $111.8 million in transportation projects are on tap for Alaska as part of a $4 billion transportation package approved by Congress.

Some of this largesse came during a conference committee involving key lawmakers - including Alaska Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens - and was won at the expense of other states with critical transportation needs.

The panel shaved about 11 percent of the formula funds normally directed to states annually and steered the money to pet projects in their own states.

Stevens is the ranking member of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Committee. In the end, Alaska got about $27.7 million in additional projects from that committee.

Ten of the 15 states receiving the biggest share of pet projects also had lawmakers on the panel. They are Texas, Washington, Illinois, Alabama, Minnesota, Kentucky, New York, Maryland, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

Critics contend Stevens is sending the state a honey-glazed ham of "pork" projects with money from the pockets of U.S. taxpayers elsewhere.

That's not the way beneficiaries of the money see it.

Seward stands to receive $200,000 for a bus facility that would be used by tour lines in the summer months. The city plans to spend $75,000 to buy a local trolley that meets Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

Seward draws a slew of tour buses each year and lacks an adequate facility where they can unload, said Seward City Manager Scott Jenke. The project is expected to be done by May with the help of $255,000 in local funds, he said.

"It's certainly not pork," said Jenke. "Tourism is a big part of our economy."

The appropriations list - which is filled with requests made by each state's congressional delegation - includes 38 transportation projects for Alaska. It is separate from a $3.5 billion request for federal formula grants to state transportation projects.

The Alaska list includes $20 million for the Alaska Railroad to make improvements to its passenger lines. In all, $30.4 million would go toward projects in Anchorage, Fairbanks and elsewhere that benefit the rail line.

Spending on the Alaska Railroad has raised the ire of a watchdog group critical of congressional spending on local projects.

The railroad is owned by the state, but receives no state funds. Touted as a government-owned service that operates self sufficiently, the railroad is projected to make $6 million in profits this year.

Yet it is in line to receive $65 million in federal funds in 2002, some of which requires a local match.

"Clearly, the railroad continues to get tens of million of dollars from the federal government to keep itself going," said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

The Washington, D.C., group frequently targets Sen. Stevens in its "pork alert" on reputedly wasteful government spending. Stevens, ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, helped secure the latest funding, said Alaska Railroad spokesman Patrick Flynn.

The watchdog group is critical of lawmakers quietly inserting federal funds for projects that aren't debated by both houses of Congress, as well as taxpayer spending for local or special-interest projects.

Stevens has been chided as the top congressional spender on such projects by Citizens Against Government Waste, which publishes an annual "Pig Book" on wasteful spending.

"I'm sure he will be very likely to be No. 1 this year, from what we've seen," Schatz said.

An Associated Press analysis shows Alaska once again leads the nation in per capita transportation spending for such "pet projects," at $178 per person.

A Stevens spokeswoman did not return phone calls seeking comment, but the senator has said in the past that Alaska needs special help because its infrastructure is still in the early stages of development.

Flynn said the federal assistance is essential to keeping the railroad operating.

"We are absolutely without a doubt vital to Alaska's economy and transportation system. There's just nobody that can do what we do," Flynn said.

The appropriation includes $38.2 million for aviation projects around the state. Akutan, Klawock, Petersburg and the Pribilof Islands would get airstrip improvements, and $10 million is earmarked for runway lighting projects around the state.

Basic transportation in Alaska has always been an expensive proposition, since many remote villages and some urban centers can only be reached by air or water. And the need to modernize basic facilities far outstrips the state's ability to pay, said Claire Richardson, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tony Knowles.

"Most Americans couldn't imagine using a five-gallon plastic bucket for their family's human waste, or hauling water by hand to their homes," Richardson said.

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