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WebMemo #889 on Federal Budget

October 20, 2005

The Bridge to Nowhere: A National Embarrassment

By

Today, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) will offer an amendment to the Senate's appropriation bill to transfer the $223 million that Congress had previously approved for a bridge in Ketchikan, Alaska, to fund reconstruction of a hurricane-damaged bridge in Louisiana. Dubbed the "Bridge to Nowhere," the bridge in Alaska would connect the town of Ketchikan (population 8,900) with its airport on the Island of Gravina (population 50) at a cost to federal taxpayers of $320 million, by way of three separate earmarks in the recent highway bill. At present, a ferry service runs to the island, but some in the town complain about its wait (15 to 30 minutes) and fee ($6 per car). The Gravina Island bridge project is an embarrassment to the people of Alaska and the U.S. Congress. Fiscally responsible Members of Congress should be eager to zero out its funding.

The bridge has become an object of national ridicule and a symbol of the fiscal irresponsibility of many in Congress toward the money entrusted to them by the taxpayers. It has also become an embarrassment to the people of Alaska and to responsible members of Congress who now find themselves tarred by the same brush dipped in the muck of the highway bill.

In response to this national humiliation, many in Alaska have vented their anger in the state's newspapers, and the papers' editors have also objected to the bridge on their editorial pages.

In the Anchorage Daily News, Diane Mucha of Eagle River wrote, "Of course, Alaska should and, hopefully, will volunteer to reject the money for the bridges to nowhere and Congress will apply the money for the hurricane relief efforts."

David Raskin of Homer, Alaska, wrote, "Alaskans owe an apology to the people of New Orleans, to Alaska Native people and to the Nation for their selfish shortsightedness in sending these scoundrels to Washington and voting to keep them there."

In the Ketchikan News, Dave Person wrote, "Thinking about the immense disaster in the Gulf States, it occurred to me that the most effective thing that the residents of Ketchikan could do to help would be to return the money earmarked for our Gravina Bridge."

Back in Anchorage, Art Weiner wrote, "In a collective act of passion, the people of Alaska should request that the funds appropriated for our bridges be used for infrastructure reconstruction in the hurricane-affected area."

Despite the willingness of many in Alaska to give back the bridge to pay for disaster relief, Alaska's congressional delegation has dug in its heels, and many of the delegation's colleagues, including all of congressional leadership, support its resistance. If Alaska loses some of its pork, they fear, so might they.

In opposing Senator Coburn's amendment to defund the bridge, one prominent Senator told a closed-door meeting of conservatives that the plan was simply impractical. Many of the earmarks, he claimed, are counted towards a state's equity bonus and thus are part of the state-by-state allocation formula. Defunding the bridge, he said, would direct at most $75 million to Louisiana, with the remaining $148 million returning to Alaska as money the state could use at its discretion for road projects.

Never mind that the Senator seems to view $75 million in taxpayers' dollars as a sum of little consequence; what the Senator sees as a problem in fact would be a considerable benefit to Alaska. Assuming the Senator's numbers are right, Alaska's Department of Transportation would gain $148 million in money it could spend on the state's transportation priorities instead of a useless bridge that would serve a tiny fraction of the state's citizens.

Perhaps recognizing that the citizens of Alaska, including many in Ketchikan, do not value the Gravina Island bridge project, its defenders have been forced to resort to threats. One House "Leadership staffer suggested that retribution could be levied for the removal of the project in a technical corrections bill or other measure," BNA reported. This is the sort of challenge that fiscally responsible senators should relish and, through their votes, show the House leadership exactly what they think of this childish threat. Most importantly, pushing back would show the nation that their august institution of democracy still maintains the moral authority to be trusted with hard-earned tax dollars.

Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., is Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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