The aftershocks of the national debate over Alaska's two costly proposed bridges -- the Gravina and Knik Arm "bridges to nowhere" -- stretched far beyond the state. The cavalier attitude toward taxpayer money shown by the Alaska congressional delegation proved to Washington politicians that there is a taste barrier beyond which the public will revolt, and that a small number of determined activists could effect change in a nation of 300 million.
As a result, Congress removed the earmarks for the two bridges in 2005 and, in early 2007, new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi de-funded more than 10,000 other earmarks left over from the previous Congress. The new Congress also is on course to enact lobbying/earmark reform legislation, and several months ago Sens. Tom Coburn and Barack Obama convinced both houses to enact sweeping legislation on earmark transparency.
None of this would have happened without Alaska's proposed bridges.
While Washington is moving to address its earmark problems, a mopping-up operation remains in Alaska regarding the Gravina Bridge. Taxpayer funds will be spent this summer to build a gravel "access" road to this nonexistent bridge. It turns out that Alaska received approximately $24 million in federal earmark funds to build this "access" road, which will end at a beach.
Why is the state building this road? Simply because $24 million in federal money is available. Regardless, the project lacks merit -- and unless Gov. Sarah Palin decides to do otherwise, this wasteful "access" road will move forward.
Let's analyze what's wrong with this situation. First, Congress earmarked (and subsequently de-earmarked) federal money for the unnecessary and expensive Gravina Bridge project.
Second, even though the state Legislature canceled the bridge component of the project, the state plans to proceed with this relatively small portion, which has highly questionable need but which retains federal funding.
Third, the state will knowingly ignore the fact that, at $8 million per mile, this 3-mile gravel road will be an extremely expensive use of taxpayer money with little to no measurable benefit (except to the road contractor, of course).
There is an alternative, however: Gov. Palin could return the money for the gravel "access" road to Washington, perhaps even with a request that the money go to rebuild hurricane-ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi. While Alaska, or any state for that matter, naturally is reluctant to return money to the federal government, doing so is the responsible and ethical thing to do and likely would benefit Alaska in the long run. Currently, officials from other states resent Alaska because the state in recent years received the highest per capita level of federal spending. This fact, coupled with the state's "bridges to nowhere" reputation for wasteful spending, makes elected federal representatives from other states more than happy to vote to reduce Alaska's federal appropriations.
Because returning money to the federal government is so unusual, Gov. Palin and the state of Alaska inevitably would reap enormous amounts of good publicity nationally. If she returned the federal money, Palin would be signaling to the rest of the country that, under her administration, Alaska will carefully handle taxpayer dollars responsibly. There's no better way for the governor to build bridges, metaphorically speaking, with the rest of the country.
Ronald Utt is the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Anchorage Daily News