Alaska can help, but let's get real about the bridge

Posted: Monday, September 26, 2005

Ketchikan Daily News By Lew Williams

Alaska can help finance the recovery from recent hurricanes. It also can secure an energy supply and generate future revenue, thus avoiding tax increases.

But first, Americans have to get the facts straight about Alaska. The misinformation is atrocious. For example, Steve Ducey of Fox and Friends reported Tuesday that the 2005 highway legislation appropriated $223 million for a bridge (at Ketchikan) to serve 50 people, or about $4.5 million per person. That is ridiculous and exhibits the sloppy reporting costing major media their viewers and readers.

The bridge would replace an expensive and inadequate shuttle ferry to a regional airport used by civilian and military aircraft. Ketchikan lies at the south end of the 500-mile-long Alaska Panhandle. The only roads into the Panhandle are at the extreme north end. Ketchikan's closest access to the continental highway system entails a six-hour ferry ride to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, plus a two-day drive to the nearest state.

Ducey's remark is stupid because, if true, it reflects adversely on the intelligence of members of Congress and on the intelligence of those who elect them. Such inaccurate reporting by Fox, and by the other networks and major newspapers, precipitated a torrent of messages to Congress urging canceling the Ketchikan bridge project and spending that highway money on hurricane relief.

We are surprised at Fox. It usually better investigates its stories. All Ducey had to do is call the congressional staff that drew up the legislation, or search Google, or contact Alaska's six-member office staff in Washington, D.C.

Democrats and other political partisans like to blame what they call pork-barrel highway spending on President George Bush. That also is inaccurate. The president does not budget highways. He can only veto. Congress drew up and passed the 2005 highway bill 412-8 in the House and 91-4 in the Senate, a veto-proof majority.

The $286.4 billion highway bill divides among states the money expected in the highway trust fund in the next six years. A state's share is based on a state's size, miles of highway, taxes contributed and political power. Earmarks in the legislation are directions given by members of Congress on where a portion of states' highway funds must go.

The highway trust fund was created in 1956 and is fed by the 18.4-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline and a 24.3-cents-per-gallon tax on diesel.

Such taxes were assessed for 40 years before the trust fund but went into the general fund. Since '56, it goes into the highway trust fund and if not spent on transportation projects stays in the fund, unavailable for other purposes.

Whether to use a portion of the highway trust funds for Ketchikan's Gravina bridge or the Knik Arm Crossing will be debated when the Alaska Legislature considers the required state matching funds, as earmarks will be debated in other states. Alaskans paid federal highway taxes from 1916, when they were first assessed, until statehood in 1959 without benefiting. There is some catching up to do for a state one-fifth the size of the continental 48.

However, if we are going to examine Alaska's 30 earmarked projects costing $590 million, let's start at the top with the most controversial $10 billion of $24 billion in earmarks. California, with a congressional delegation dominated by Democrats, has 367 earmarked projects worth $1.3 billion (that's a 'b,' not an 'm'). Texas is next with 170 earmarked projects worth $763 million and won't give up any while facing hurricane damage. New York's Democrat-dominated congressional delegation earmarked 345 projects worth $660 million. And the hurricane-hit states aside from Texas - Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana - have 263 earmarked projects worth $949 million and will need it, plus their shares of the rest of the trust fund.

Alaskans learned this week that their dividend paid from earnings of the $31.5 billion Alaska Permanent Fund will be $845.76. Between 25 and 50 percent of Alaska's oil revenue goes into the Alaska Permanent Fund. The money is invested and Alaskans have received a dividend each year since 1982. Some Alaskans are contributing their dividends to hurricane relief.

Great. But Alaska can help the rest of the United States by urging the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be open to oil production.

Alaska's Arctic Coast, extending about as far as the distance from Chicago to Philadelphia, is divided into three sections. The center section is Prudhoe Bay, where 17-20 percent of the nation's oil is produced. To the west of Prudhoe Bay is the 21-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve. To the east of Prudhoe Bay is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ANWR's oil-rich coastal plain is less than 10 percent of the 19-million-acre refuge, which is larger than the state of Maine or about one-fourth the size of California.

Environmentalists are fighting ANWR oil production as they fought the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and now fight opening of the National Petroleum Reserve. It took an act of Congress to approve the trans-Alaska pipeline, as it will to open ANWR. The nation would be in bad shape if oil hadn't flowed through that pipeline for the last 28 years.

When Alaska invited bids for leases on state land in Prudhoe Bay, it received $900 million the first day. Oil was about $2 a barrel. What would the federal government receive for leases on the coastal plain of ANWR with oil today at $65 a barrel?

Alaska is the key to more federal revenue and a secure source of energy. Where better for oil companies to pay royalties than to our own government instead of to one that might finance terrorists?

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