Not surprisingly, Alaska's pork-barrel hubris has come back to haunt the state in a public-relations fiasco as the cash-strapped federal government pours hundreds of millions of dollars into questionable bridges. The outcry will fade, eventually, and Alaska probably will keep its goodies. But the state and its leaders now will have to learn that gobbling up federal transportation dollars to build luxuries endangers funding for more basic infrastructure needs.
Ketchikan's "bridge to nowhere" has spent the past year as taxpayer advocates' national poster project for waste. The $223 million appropriation is derided by pundits of every political persuasion, and now is the subject of angry debate in Congress. Even a growing number of people in Ketchikan don't understand the fuss, because they know they don't need a bridge.
The bridge's defenders, in the state's congressional delegation and the city's and borough's leadership, note that much of the nation's infrastructure was built with federal money, and that Alaska is a young state that remains behind the others. They also say it's not a bridge to nowhere, but to the city's future, as well as its airport.
They're right: The bridge would not go nowhere, but to Gravina Island, pop. nothing. And it would access the airport, making obsolete a ferry system that reliably delivers passengers from the island to the city quicker than you can drive downtown from Juneau International Airport.
They're also right that Alaska deserves a good slice of the federal transportation budget to help the Last Frontier build its connections. Alaska deserves its chance to catch up and to grow, and the obstacles here are more daunting than in most states. But the blessing of being a recipient rather than a donor state in terms of transportation dollars requires prudent planning and prioritizing. Imagine yourself the big-city commuter, stuck in traffic on aging freeways or an unreliable transit system, wondering to yourself why your state gives away more of its federal gas taxes than it gets back so that states like Alaska can build a bridge to a virtually uninhabited island. It will always be a tough sell, but pushing projects that can be labeled "bridge to nowhere" to the top of the state's list makes it even harder.
The bridge probably would make a few Gravina Island landowners wealthier, and would allow some Ketchikan residents to move permanently to their cabin sites. It is not, as its backers claim, necessary for the growth of a city that has lost population for more than a decade.
But all of this is moot now, except as it applies to Alaska's future priorities. The decision is made, and Ketchikan will have its bridge. And the state's resulting black eye casts a shadow on any number of other proposed and debated desires: a road out of Juneau, an upgrade for the aging Alaska Marine Highway System fleet, the Bradfield Canal road to connect Ketchikan and Wrangell to the mainland. These projects, if Alaskans agree on them, will cost plenty - enough to raise eyebrows in Washington and around the country.
At this point it probably is wishful thinking to imagine that Congress will pay the bulk of any of these or other big Alaska projects in the near future. But just in case, the state needs to start prioritizing a list that it can defend more logically the next time around.
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