My turn: Scrutiny of spending is legitimate

Posted: Sunday, November 06, 2005

Win Gruening's letter to the editor last week taking the Empire to task for discussing the proposed Gravina Island bridge in Ketchikan bordered on the bizarre. Mr. Gruening's rant seemed to suggest that any public discussion in Juneau about the Gravina bridge was bound to destroy the harmonious relations between neighbors in Southeast Alaska.

After reading Mr. Gruening's letter and with political catastrophe apparently at hand, I was compelled to go to the Empire archives and read for myself what perfidious message the Empire was spewing. Reading Mr. Gruening's letter, one would think the Empire had singled out the Gravina Island bridge for rough political treatment to the detriment of Juneau's political interests. After reading the Empire editorial I was surprised by the measured tone compared to Mr. Gruening's hysterical rendition and the consequences that would flow from the "self-righteous" Empire editorial.

In reality, a number of newspapers, political commentators and organizations have raised questions about some of the transportation projects promoted by the Congress in the recent transportation bill. To be sure, some of the comments about the Gravina Island bridge made in the national media have been based on incomplete information. All of us who have worked or vacationed in Ketchikan (as I have) and consider Ketchikan a great neighbor, find the national discussion about the bridge from nowhere to nowhere incomplete.

All of us have witnessed erroneous assumptions and statements about Alaska. Misapprehensions about Alaska abound but to focus on a few misstatements made by commentators "Outside" misses the larger context of the debate over transportation. The essential point is whether spending in excess of $250 million for a single project in a relatively small community is intelligent public policy.

The Empire is hardly alone in addressing this topic of public concern. The Empire's editorial was more or less aligned with an editorial in the Anchorage Daily News addressing this topic. Neither paper called for a halt to the Gravina Island bridge construction. Both papers pointed out that Alaska, as a state that receives a hugely disproportionate amount of federal transportation funding compared to taxes paid, must be careful in building essential transportation projects or run the risk of a political backlash. This editorial position is not only valid, the position is underscored by numerous other commentaries, including statements in the Wall Street Journal, the Heritage Foundation and by organizations with solid conservative orientation.

The shrill reactionary commentary by Mr. Gruening illustrates his detachment from the real world in which most Americans live. In Mr. Gruening's world, a select group of citizens can apparently get together and put together a deal to build a bridge or new capitol without genuinely considering the wants and needs of the public. The problem is that Mr. Gruening and his pals expect the public to pick up the tab for their deals.

Mr. Gruening and the back room dealmakers that expect to use public funds for their fantasy projects shouldn't be surprised when individuals and organizations of every political and ideological persuasion grumble or raise concerns. The congressional decision to earmark funds for a few select mega projects in our state is bound to continue. It is not clear that the Alaska Legislature will concur in the federal appropriation "earmarks." Funding the Gravina Island bridge and a few other earmarked projects will substantially limit the Legislature's ability to fund other transportation priorities and this prospect is already being debated in Fairbanks, Anchorage and across the rest of our state.

What Mr. Gruening seems to suggest is that we shouldn't be allowed to discuss or debate public funding for infrastructure if the discussion would "antagonize" our neighbors. The idea that significant public expenditures shouldn't be subject to discussion is ludicrous. George Will, Rush Limbaugh, the Heritage Foundation, the New York Times and dozens of other newspapers, media outlets and commentators are all using the Gravina Island bridge as an example of transportation policy gone amok. It is time for Mr. Gruening to stop carping about the Empire, implicitly calling for self-censorship, and instead address the real issues of how we can best improve the realistic transportation infrastructure needs in our state and nation.

• Juneau resident Joe Geldhof is an attorney.

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