'Bridge to nowhere' funds threatened

Amendment to prohibit Ketchikan projects may get vote in Congress this week

Posted: Sunday, June 11, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Two proposed Alaska bridge projects could have their federal funding blocked under an amendment to appropriations legislation sponsored by an Illinois congressman.

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Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, a Republican who represents suburban Chicago, on Tuesday persuaded the House Appropriations Committee to pass an amendment that would block spending any federal money on proposed bridges across Knik Arm and from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, the site of the city's airport.

The amendment was approved in a voice vote.

Bridge advocates have looked to the federal government to help pay for the structures, estimated to cost hundreds of millions each.

Steve Hansen, communications director for the House Transportation Committee, chaired by Alaska's Republican Rep. Don Young, said the full appropriations bill could reach the House floor as early as next week. Young probably will try to strike Kirk's amendment through a floor vote or a procedural challenge, Hansen said.

"It's part of the whole package ... but Congressman Young is opposed to it," Hansen said. "It's an issue of contention that most likely will be addressed on the floor."

Kirk in a press release and on his congressional Web site Kirk lambasted the Ketchikan project.

"I was proud to offer an amendment ... to kill the Alaskan Bridge-to-Nowhere," Kirk said in the statements.

He called the bridges to Gravina Island wasteful spending when "34 percent of our roads and over 100,000 bridges in America are in need of repair."

Kirk did not mention the Knik Arm bridge, which would connect Anchorage to Point MacKenzie in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. A spokeswoman for the Appropriations Committee chairman said both bridges are part of the amendment.

Spokesmen for Gov. Frank Murkowski and the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority said they were watching the amendment.

"Anytime something like this turns up in Congress we're concerned about it," Murkowski spokesman John Manly said. "We believe we will be able to manage the thing and get it out of there."

George Wuerch, the former Anchorage mayor who chairs the Knik toll authority, said Kirk's amendment apparently does not take any federal money away from Alaska but just specifies it cannot be spent on the bridges.

Even if the amendment survives the full House and reconciliation with a Senate appropriations bill, the governor and state lawmakers might be able to use the old federal bridge money for other state projects and replace it with state dollars, Wuerch said.

A bigger priority for the toll authority is finding ways to finance the 75 percent of the $600 million Knik Arm construction estimate that is not covered by existing state and federal money.

Young and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, originally specified about $450 million in federal spending for the two bridge projects in a highway bill passed last year.

After hurricane damage in Louisiana and Mississippi last fall, however, the Alaska projects were targeted by taxpayer groups and members of Congress as expensive pork-barrel projects.

The earmarks specifying that the $450 million be spent on the bridges were removed, although the money remained in Alaska's share of federal transportation money. Murkowski, however, said the formula used to decide how federal money is distributed across Alaska limited the amount the state could appropriate to $93.6 million for the Knik project and about $91 million for the Ketchikan bridges.

Other state and federal grants bring the total available for the Knik project to about $138 million, according to toll authority figures.

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