FAIRBANKS - Activists in Alaska are turning up the pressure on U.S. Rep. Don Young and the rest of Congress with new grass-roots drives to advocate sending money from the recent federal transportation act to the Gulf Coast for hurricane rebuilding efforts.
Gene Storm of Anchorage, who helped defeat a statewide property tax cap initiative in 2000, said he launched his petition drive for the Gulf Coast rebuilding effort on Tuesday.
"The people I'm talking to, across the political spectrum, are eager to do the right thing," Storm said.
Also, the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project has started a Web site where people from around the country can urge their members of Congress to "give back" their money from the transportation act.
"It's pretty obvious that, at least on the grass-roots, everyday citizen level, there's a consensus that the money could be better spent on the Gulf," said Emily Ferry, coordinator of the project, which several Alaska environmental groups formed a few years ago to fight the big earmarks Young put in the transportation act.
Young has said rerouting the act's billions of dollars in earmarked money would be "moronic."
Talking with Alaska media earlier this month, he hinted at the political difficulty of prying open an act that took years to develop and which will spread $286 billion across the country during the next five years.
"If they want to give their money back, fine. Let's see those states give their money back," Young said of members of Congress who have suggested the transportation money should be rerouted.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California has offered to do just that, but few other volunteers have stepped forward publicly.
Ferry said the law could be rewritten, if Congress gets enough pressure from citizens.
"We're talking about the guys that make the rules, and if they want to change the rules, they can do that," she said. "They could find a way. They could make a new law. To say it's not possible is just a cop-out."
While much media attention has focused on two bridge projects near Anchorage and Ketchikan, Ferry acknowledged that the Alaska earmarks alone wouldn't amount to much in the big picture.
"It's going to take all of Congress agreeing to do this at the same time," Ferry said. "It can't be just Don Young giving up his earmarks. They're the biggest ones out there, so they're an easy target."
Young, along with U.S. Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, earmarked more than $1 billion for Alaska in the transportation act, which President Bush signed in August. About $600 million was Alaska-bound through formula spending anyway - the earmarks just designated it for projects of the congressional delegation's choosing - but another $400 million was money above the formula.
The bridge over Knik Arm, just north of Anchorage, will receive a total of $230 million from the act. A bridge over Tongass Narrows at Ketchikan will get $223 million. Much of the money will be essentially deducted from the formula funds the state gets.
All told, the state should see about $2.5 billion over the next five years in federal highway spending.
Young also said earlier this month that the transportation act's money, because it was raised with gasoline taxes, can only be spent on transportation projects.
Storm said his petition recognizes that limitation. "It's aimed directly at transportation infrastructure that was destroyed by these hurricanes - bridges, roads, causeways," he said.
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