A congressional conference committee may strip two maligned Alaska bridge projects of their earmarks, but keep the same amount of highway funding for the state.
That could mean delays for the Gravina Island bridge project in Ketchikan and the Knik Arm crossing in Anchorage if they have to compete with other Alaska highway projects and if legislative appropriations are needed to make up any funding gaps, state transportation officials say.
The Gravina Island access project, dubbed by critics as "the bridge to nowhere," had $223 million in earmarks designated in the highway transportation bill that passed Congress earlier this year.
Anchorage's Knik Arm crossing, which is to be named Don Young's Way after U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, had $229 million in earmarks.
"It's not final yet, but it seems that they are moving to take away the earmark designation," said Courtney Schikora Boone, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
The House and Senate conference committee was meeting to work out a compromise appropriations bill. Boone said the details won't be known until the committee releases its report, but she said Stevens was disappointed the bridge earmarks were being removed.
"Obviously this would be a setback, if it happens, for a project that I think is important not only in Ketchikan but Southeast as well," said Win Gruening, chairman of the Alaska Committee, which works to keep the Capitol in Juneau. "It has been in the planning stages for 30 years, that I'm aware of. And I don't think that Ketchikan's need for basic infrastructure is going to go away because of the loss of these earmarks."
Pressure to quash the earmarks has grown along with national condemnation of the bridges as examples of congressional pork, particularly as newspaper editorials juxtapose the Alaska projects with the money needed for hurricane relief in the South.
If the earmarks are stripped, the two projects would have to compete with other projects on the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan, which lists the state's highway priorities, said state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesman John Manly.
State Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula called the department on Tuesday to ask about the process for prioritizing projects.
"I'm hoping DOT will follow a good process so that projects will stay where they were prior to the earmarks, particularly Sunny Point, which is a dangerous intersection, and Riverside Drive," Kerttula said.
The Knik Arm crossing may have more flexibility because the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority can borrow money based on future tolls, but the Gravina Island project may have a tougher time finding full funding, he said.
"The governor has made it a priority. The congressional delegation has made it a priority. It's in the (transportation plan). It's just a question of how it's going to compete in there," Manly said. "In reality, we're going to have to sit down with the Legislature and other groups and figure out how that fits in with what else needs to be done in the state."
Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein acknowledges that removing the dedicated earmarks would make it more difficult to build the bridges to Gravina Island, a project meant to provide access to the airport and allow development on the sparsely populated island.
"After many years of seeking funding for the project, it's another phase that Ketchikan does not need," Weinstein said. "It makes it more problematic if the funding is just put into a big pot and it's up to the Legislature and governor to decide where the funding goes."
George Wuerch, chairman of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority board, said stripping the earmarks but keeping the money would have the effect of shifting the decision making for funding the projects from Washington to Juneau.
"It's up to the governor and ultimately the Legislature," Wuerch said. "We think ultimately the merit of this project will withstand the test of legislative scrutiny."