Alaska editorials: End of bridge earmarks leads to priorities

Posted: Thursday, November 24, 2005

This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

The national outcry over the "bridges to nowhere" may end up producing a real opportunity for Alaska. Yes, Congress appears likely to take the earmarks off Alaska's two most controversial highway projects, the Ketchikan and Knik Arm bridges. But Congress apparently won't take back the extra money - some $452 million - that was stuffed into the bill to help pay for them.

Rather than being locked into controversial, costly, underfunded projects, Alaska can step back, reassess our most urgent transportation needs, and select the investments that make the most long-term sense.

Congress' new approach will end the national controversy, while leaving Alaska with more highway money and more latitude to decide which projects actually get built. That's a pretty good turn of events, given the furor the two bridges provoked.

Lifting the earmarks on the bridges also eases a squeeze that was beginning to hit other projects around the state. Neither bridge was fully funded in the bill, though each would siphon money from Alaska's regular pipeline of federal funds for other highway needs.

Anchorage was looking at a drop of more than 50 percent in money coming to local projects ... . Fairbanks stood to lose slightly more than half its funding. Juneau's projected loss was roughly 50 percent ... .

With the congressional earmarks lifted, the state can review and determine its priority list of projects. The Ketchikan and Knik bridges won't be the only big-ticket items in the hunt. Anchorage is working up a 20-year road building plan that includes a $600 million freeway-to-freeway (Glenn-to-Seward) connection through Fairview.

Facing off against the big projects are scores of smaller projects throughout the state that will never grab headlines. In Anchorage alone, even without the proposed $600 million superhighway in Fairview, the city's 20-year transportation wish list totals $2.4 billion.

How will the state sort out its transportation priorities? At least for the near term, the key step is the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program. The state was just wrapping up work on that obscure planning document as Congress began reconsidering Alaska's two big earmarks.

In this priority-setting process, the Ketchikan bridge looks like a tough sell for Alaskans living in the rest of the state. It will soak up about $300 million to serve a population of just 13,000. That's a pretty small bang for the buck, as some Southcentral Republican legislators have noted.

Anchorage, however, wouldn't necessarily find clear sailing if the Ketchikan bridge is dropped. We could look greedy for wanting two $600 million mega-projects - much less one - and no doubt the rest of the state will want a bite from the pork pie, too.

The lesson here is that, even with the impressive political muscle of Ted Stevens and Don Young, there is still nowhere near enough money to build everything on the state's wish lists. Alaska faces tough choices, but we have $452 million of new opportunity. To do things right, it's essential to sift out the dreamy visions and focus on more practical, incremental investments in better transportation.

This editorial first appeared in the Voice of the (Anchorage) Times:

Well, here they come, all breathless and lining up to claim a piece of the bridge money.

Congress, in another example of its usual wisdom, said it was all right for Alaska to have the dollars earmarked for a bridge to the airport in Ketchikan and a bridge across Knik Arm in Anchorage - but that the funds cannot be specifically allocated for those two construction projects.

In other words, it would be up to Alaskans - presumably and most importantly the governor and members of the Legislature - to perhaps use the money for some other purposes.

Instantly, new proposals flowed. A new lane on a highway here. A wider turn at an intersection there. Improvements to crowded streets. Maybe a bike trail or two. A little here and a lot there.

If that happens - and it appears it will - you can kiss the bridges goodbye. Not just for now. Forever.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for those bridges to receive the federal funding required for their construction.

The bridge to the Ketchikan airport has become a poster child for every anti-Alaska liberal and green group in the country, aided and abetted by many segments of the national media.

No matter that it would open the way for development of 1,700 acres of Gravina Island, across the Tongass Narrows from Ketchikan - hardly a "bridge to nowhere," as it is being branded across the land.

The bridge over the Knik Arm is even more crucial to the future development of Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough ... .

But it will be a project that never will be if the dollars are nibbled away. If every Anchorage legislator is going to reach for bridge money to fund a pet project in his district, forget about the big picture. Forget about the future ... .

This is no time for bickering. It is a time for the governor and the Legislature to stand together and commit to the bridges now.

The other projects can wait. The bridges cannot.

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

It is obvious to all but the most ardent believer that the two "Bridges to Nowhere," whether they deserve the derisive name or not, are indeed going nowhere fast in terms of public support. It is also obvious that, with Congress backtracking and leaving it to the state to decide whether federal money should be spent on those projects, the actual financing of the bridges may be on a similar course.

With much uncertainty about the total cost, the state's share of that cost, and whether the bridges - one at Ketchikan and one north out of Anchorage - are actually needed yet, Gov. Frank Murkowski and the Legislature should consider setting aside the bridge proposals for the moment and putting their attention on more pressing transportation needs.

Money for the two bridge projects would have, until a congressional conference committee said otherwise under pressure recently, drawn heavily from the pot of money that Alaska receives from the federal government for transportation projects. The fact that the proposed Gravina Island bridge and Knik Arm crossing would have taken money from other needs clearly upset local leaders and worried some Alaska legislators of both major parties.

The governor has put great emphasis on the notion that many parts of Alaska's transportation infrastructure must be improved for the benefit of construction of a natural gas pipeline. Anyone who has driven the Dalton Highway, for example, knows that the route can't sustain gas line construction in its present condition. Some gas line-related upgrading was postponed in the latest planning guide put out by the state Department of Transportation, however. Putting the bridge money on hold could change that ... .

Debate about the two bridges is a statewide matter, primarily because those projects would take money from around the state to principally serve portions of only two regions. The Fairbanks area, if the first outlay of $452 million for the bridges is provided as originally planned, would see its share of transportation funds for 2006 drop to $4.2 million. Local planners had been expecting $9.8 million.

Alaska and its many communities, including Fairbanks and North Pole, have needs greater than construction of the Gravina Island bridge and the Knik Arm crossing. The governor and the Legislature must come to realize this and put the bridge projects on hold while doing further study of the finances involved.

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