Thursday, September 11, 2008

Election Madness: Last Exit Before Bridge to Nowhere

So we've been hearing a lot recently about this "Bridge to Nowhere" and how people were against it or maybe for it. But if you're anything like me you actually have no idea what they're talking about. Where is this bridge to nowhere? Whose bright idea was it to build the thing? And where does Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin fit into this picture? Well gather 'round children and you shall hear about the plan to build a big, expensive bridge in the middle of nowhere with the aid of earmarked Federal funds.

The Gravina Island Bridge Project

The generic term "bridge to nowhere" has been applied to many ill-conceived projects (and more than one in the State of Alaska), but when you hear it used today chances are that it's referring to this plan to connect the town of Ketchikan, Alaska to Ketchikan International Airport on Gravina Island. According to an article in USAToday, the proposed bridge was to be almost as long as the Golden Gate Bridge and (in order not to disturb maritime traffic) taller than the Brooklyn bridge, and the projected cost was over 315 million dollars.

And who would this bridge serve? Well, the estimated population of Ketchikan, Alaska in 2000 was 7,900 and the population of the entire Ketchikan Gateway Borough was 14,070. Meanwhile, on the other side of the bridge, the airport served 209,872 passengers in 2006 and the 2000 population of Gravina Island was a whopping 50 people. The crossing is currently serviced by a ferry which runs every half hour: in the year 2006 the ferry served 350,304 total passengers and 87,117 vehicles. By comparison, the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York serves 136,000 vehicles (over 1.5 times that number) daily.

2005 Katrina Controversy

The 2006 National Appropriations Bill for transportation projects included $452 million earmarked for the construction of the Gravina Island bridge and the Knik Arm Bridge -- another even more expensive Alaskan bridge (cost projections exceeding 1 billion dollars) near Anchorage (2007 population of Anchorage metro area: 359,180) of dubious necessity.

In October 2005, first-term senator Tom Coburn (Republican, Junior Senator from Oklahoma) introduced an amendment which would have diverted this money to the relief effort for areas ravaged by that trailer park stripper Katrina. Specifically, the funds would have gone to repairing the Twin Span which connects New Orleans to Sl----- and Mississippi (pre-storm traffic averaged nearly 55,000 vehicles a day). Ted Stevens (Republican), the Senior Senator from Alaska, pitched a fit at this suggestion and threatened to resign if the amendment was passed. He claimed that his state was being unfairly singled out and that these bridges were needed to encourage growth. In the end the amendment was defeated 82-14, and the amount of money designated for the State of Alaska remained the same although the funds were no longer earmarked for use constructing these controversial bridges.

Incidentally, in 2006 Senator Stevens also attempted to block passage of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (introduced by Senator Coburn and also spearheaded by Senators Obama and McCain) which ordered that the destination of all government funds be published online (USAspending.gov). Rotten old bastard.

Palin's 2006 Gubernatorial Campaign

When running for Governor of Alaska in 2006, Sarah Palin was a vocal supporter of these bridge projects. During her campaign, she was quoted as saying "Yes. I would like to see Alaska's infrastructure projects built sooner rather than later. The window is now - while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist."

The picture to the right was taken during a campaign trip to Ketchikan: she's holding up a t-shirt making light of those who called the area "nowhere" (99901 is the Ketchikan zip code). On this occasion she said, "Ok, you’ve got [Matanuska-Susitna] Valley trash standing here in the middle of nowhere. I think we’re going to make a good team as we progress that bridge project." [For the record, "progress" is not a transitive verb.]

In 2007, only after she had been elected governor, after Alaska's Department of Transportation stated that it was leaning towards installing a ferry service across Knik Arm instead of the bridge citing the cost, and after national public opinion had solidified against these projects making it unlikely that more federal dollars would be forthcoming, Palin put the kibosh on these bridges. You'll note that Alaska still took the money (no one ever says no to money), they just didn't build the bridges.

2008 Presidential Election


In her well-received speech, Sarah Palin told the Republican National Convention "I told the Congress 'thanks but no thanks' for that Bridge to Nowhere." [The Congress?] This assertion is repeated in McCain's "Original Mavericks" ad which claims of Palin "she stopped the bridge to nowhere."



[Is just me or does that ad look super cheap. And also, "she took on big oil" aren't these two all about drilling for oil anywhere and everywhere you can? What, was she like "you're going to start drillin' in those wildlife preserves whether you like it or not." (Oh ok, she taxed oil industry profits and stuff.)]

Anyhoo, in the Washington Post Howard Kurtz calls this assertion a "whopper" and points out "she endorsed the remote project while running for governor in 2006, claimed to be an opponent only after Congress killed its funding the next year and has used the $223 million provided for it for other state ventures. Far from being an opponent of earmarks, Palin hired lobbyists to try to capture more federal funding."

Far from elevating her to maverick status, in this episode Palin acted like your typical, cynical politician. First, she pandered to local voters during her gubernatorial bid by voicing support for their bridge project. Then, once she got into office and national opinion swung against the whole bridge to nowhere idea, she changed her position and broke her campaign promise. And now she has the ovaries to make it sound like Congress was shoving the money in her face being like "take this and build a bridge to nowhere" and she was all "no thanks."

Palin was no doubt banking on the fact that we all had no idea what she was talking about, and so she felt free to rewrite history. Moreover, Palin is now bandying about that "Bridge to Nowhere" term which she originally claimed was insulting to Alaskans. It's also ironic that McCain blamed the collapse of that bridge in Minneapolis on the fact that Congress was busy funding Bridges to Nowhere.

Map image was created with Google Earth and comes via APRN's website. Photo of Sarah Palin comes from dailykos via wikipedia. Original Mavericks ad produced by McCain-Palin 2008.

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