Palin supports $600 million 'other' bridge project
By GARANCE BURKE
Associated Press Writer
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Gov. Sarah Palin may eventually have said "no thanks" to a federally funded Bridge to Nowhere.
But a bridge to her hometown of Wasilla, that's a different story.
A $600 million bridge and highway project to link Alaska's largest city to Palin's town of 7,000 residents is moving full speed ahead, despite concerns the bridge could worsen some commuting and threaten a population of beluga whales.
Local officials already have spent $42 million on plans to route traffic across the Knik Arm inlet, a narrow finger of water extending roughly 25 miles northeast of Anchorage toward Wasilla. The proposal exists thanks to an earmark request by Republican Rep. Don Young, whose son-in-law has a small stake in property near the bridge's proposed western span.
A Democratic council member in Anchorage will try Tuesday to spike the city's sponsorship of the project, which Palin supports with some reservations.
"This is basically an incredibly expensive project that doesn't help commuters, doesn't help create jobs and may drive whales to extinction," said Justin Massey, an attorney advising environmentalists opposed to the proposal. "It is also a project that serves the area where the governor is from, which is near and dear to her heart."
The Knik Arm was one of two bridge proposals in Alaska awarded more than $450 million from lawmakers who requested money for special projects in 2005, when Young chaired the House Transportation Committee. Young, Alaska's 18-term congressman, has said Alaska still lacks basic roads, railroads and bridges that were developed long ago in older and less spacious states.
At the time, Palin's running mate for the Republican ticket, Arizona Sen. John McCain, derided both projects as wasteful. He called Young's highway bill a "monstrosity" that was "terrifying in its fiscal consequences."
"I want no part of this," McCain said in a July 2005 statement. "This legislation is not - I emphasize not - my way of legislating."
The governor initially championed the first so-called Bridge to Nowhere, which would have connected the southeastern Alaska town of Ketchikan to its airport on nearby Gravina Island. She later pulled the plug on the project after it became a national symbol of extravagant federal spending.
Palin's record on the Bridge to Nowhere has emerged as a central point of controversy in the campaign over her recent public claims that she had opposed it, aligning herself with McCain's anti-earmarks philosophy.
Palin still supports the second bridge, officially named Don Young's Way in honor of the congressman. She called for a review of the bridge's financing plans and raised concerns about its financial risks for the state. Still, the planning process is marching forward.
"Governor Palin's demand for accountability and transparency around this project is exactly what she has called for across the board to ensure taxpayers' dollars are being used wisely," spokeswoman Maria Comella said.
Dianne Keller, who succeeded Palin as mayor in Wasilla, has said the new $600 million crossing could lower traffic congestion in the fast-growing community. A Federal Highway Administration study shows the project would cut down some area commutes, but could add to others as more people move to the suburbs.
The average commuter trip to work for Wasilla residents is 34 minutes, compared to an average of 25 minutes for the rest of the United States, according to 2000 Census figures, the most recent available.
The bridge is popular with property developers - including a group comprised of Young's son-in-law, the former legislative director for indicted Republican Sen. Ted Stevens and three others - who own land across from Anchorage on the inlet's western side.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is evaluating whether the isolated beluga whales that breed and feed in the waterway's strong tides should be listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Palin has publicly urged the government not to list Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered.
Anchorage Assembly members Patrick Flynn and Matt Claman, both Democrats, plan to introduce a proposal to kill the bridge on Tuesday. They argue the money would be better used to set up commuter van pools and fix Alaska's existing highways, some of which are so rutted that cars go skidding off the road.
"She clearly hasn't said 'no thanks' to this particular bridge," Claman said. "If money were not an issue and we had no limits, maybe we'd build a bridge. But this is not a pragmatic or efficient way to spend scarce resources."