October: Enduring a month of misinformed Alaska-bashing

Posted: Sunday, November 06, 2005

Ketchikan Daily News By Lew Williams

October was "Bash Alaska Month" - and whack Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska , for good measure.

From our neighbors at the Juneau Empire to the Reader's Digest; to major newspapers and TV networks; to grandstanding members of Congress, Ketchikan and Anchorage became famous for their "bridges to nowhere."

Shocking is that there were so many errors in their reports, it's obvious they didn't investigate. They were so giddy with a "bridge to nowhere" headline or sound bite that, like junior journalists, they missed the big story: Congress has cut highway spending by almost 20 percent!

Congress passed the $182 billion, five-year federal highway bill in July, not a six-year, $286.5 billion program a fading old columnist wrote for Reader's Digest. The amounts listed in the legislation are only authorizations, including earmarks that members of Congress inserted for their respective states. Money still has to be appropriated each year. And for the first year of the 5-year program, the lawmakers appropriated only 80.4 to 85.5 percent of the authorization.

That cut probably was because the tax revenue coming from the 18.4 cents-per-gallon tax and 24.3 cents-per-gallon on diesel is running 15-20 percent less than expected. Another story?

We understand Sen. Stevens' anger after a grandstanding freshman senator, Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, pulled a surprise by proposing that money for Alaska's bridges be diverted to Louisiana, in effect, scuttling an 89-year-old procedure in allocating highway funds.

The first federal highway program was set up in 1916. Each state shared available funds based on size of the state, miles of highways, and population. Other factors have been included in the formula since.

Highway tax revenue went into the general fund until 1956. Then the Highway Trust Fund was created to receive fuel taxes and taxes on tires, trucks and other heavy equipment. Alaska didn't participate in the federal highway program (although Alaskans paid the taxes) until it became a state in 1959.

Coburn is trying to depict himself as a "pork"-cutting conservative. He would have been more effective if he had volunteered some of the "pork" in Oklahoma's $2.8 billion highway authorization, instead of tapping Alaska's $2.1 billion. Actually, the five hurricane-hit states - Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida - are authorized 17.5 percent of the total five-year program, and each is authorized more than Alaska. Also, Alaska Congressman Don Young's House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has been meeting daily, designing programs to rebuild the Gulf states. They are not forgotten.

Twelve of the 15 senators voting with Coburn to strip Alaska of its bridge money represent states that have been authorized more money than ours. The 82 senators supporting Stevens against the Coburn bill - probably fearing reallocation of highway funds - represent states with large authorizations such as California with $17 billion, hurricane-hit Texas with $14.5 billion, hurricane-hit Florida with $8.7 billion, and New York, home of major media, with $8.4 billion. Makes Alaska's authorization seem puny compared with its size - one fifth the area of all the Lower 48.

Each state must draw up a 20-year highway program with wide public participation - people asking for their highway projects ("pork?"). A three-year State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) has to be maintained and approved by two federal agencies. Alaska's bridges and Juneau access are in both plans. The Department of Transportation's Web site lists all projects and their justification in detail, including the Gravina bridge environmental impact statement, completed more than a year ago.

There also is a long list of data that states must provide in order to qualify for federal funds. Doing that costs Alaska several million a year and drives up the cost of every project. Admittedly, the Gravina bridge is costly. It didn't start that way. Then came the demand at hearings that it be high enough for cruise ships to clear, bringing 850,000 people to Ketchikan each year. The way regulations grow, the Gravina bridge might be viewed as a bargain in 10 years.

Ketchikan is located in the 500-mile long Alaska Panhandle with no railroad or road access except at the extreme north end. Ketchikan is on an island in the south end, and cut off on the south and east by high mountains. To the north is a deep water channel, so the only place to expand or build an airport is west to Gravina.

That airport serves more than the 10 flights a day its critics claim. The postal service, parcel carriers and the military use the airport. Two air ambulance companies are based there. And six air taxi companies serve a dozen outlying communities from the airport.

If "pork butchers" such as Sen. Coburn want to save money, they should push for more military base closures such as the Bangor, Wash., nuclear sub base and its Ketchikan satellite. Before those subs leave on Pacific patrol with 24 missiles to keep North Korea and China honest, they are tested for stealth in deep water north of Ketchikan, for which the Navy flies in technicians.

If we close Bangor and the Navy's Ketchikan facility, some North Korean-supplied terrorists might drop a missile where it will educate those woefully uninformed about Alaska. However, they probably would hit the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline first. It would require only a conventional warhead to deny West Coast refineries 950,000 barrels of oil a day (plus another 900,000 when the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is producing), shaking up the economy clear to Wall Street.

That is the reason Alaska's Sen. Stevens, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Congressman Young are determined to build anti-missile capability and an efficient transportation network in Alaska, and why Stevens was re-elected last time by a record (for any senator) of 77.1 percent of those voting.

Alaska's critics can sleep peacefully tonight knowing that Alaska and Sen. Stevens are protecting their backsides and their right to misinform.

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