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Published: Friday, 4/16/2004

Bridges to nowhere

IT'S tempting to call them pork-barrel projects, but two highway bridges in Alaska proposed for funding in a bill passed by the House are far more than just pork. In the appropriations slaughterhouse that is the U.S. Congress, they're practically the whole hog.

The projects, one costing $200 million and the other a whopping $2 billion, are testaments to Congress' uncontrolled spending binge of late and the power and greed that drive it.

Referred to by critics as the "bridges to nowhere," the projects would be easier to swallow as pork if genuine need could be shown, but even local residents acknowledge they're boondoggles, designed mostly to pad construction payrolls for a few years and boost the standing of Alaska's lone GOP congressman, Rep. Don Young.

The smaller of the two bridges would connect Ketchikan, a city of just 7,845 people in the southern Alaska panhandle, to an island that has only 50 residents but boasts the area's lone airport, which has fewer than 10 flights a day. At $200 million, the mile-long bridge, soaring 200 feet above the water, would be almost as costly as Toledo's new I-280 span over the Maumee River, which will carry some 60,000 vehicles per day.

The Ketchikan bridge would replace a five-minute passage on a car ferry that runs winter and summer and is judged by residents as reliable. Because of complex local geography, getting to the airport via the bridge would take longer than it does now.

The other project, at Anchorage, a city with 40,000 fewer people than Toledo, would run two miles across an ocean inlet to an undeveloped area known as Port MacKenzie, which has only one tenant. At $2 billion, this span would far eclipse the $1.2 billion that would be needed in today's dollars to reconstruct San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

Down payments for the projects - $120 million for the Ketchikan bridge and $200 million for Anchorage - were included in the $275 billion federal transportation bill passed by the House on April 4. Fortunately, the projects aren't in the $318 billion version passed by the Senate, but Mr. Young, chairman of the House Highway and Infrastructure Committee, vows they will be part of the final measure.

The highway bill has become a political football being punted back and forth by Congress and the White House, with President Bush threatening to veto anything costing more than $256 billion total.

While all congressmen contend that every highway appropriation is vitally needed by their constituents, it's projects like the Alaska bridges that give such pork an especially offensive smell.

For the small number of people they would serve, the bridges are grandiose and way too expensive. And, because the money is drawn from the federal gasoline tax that every motorist in the nation pays, distribution is inherently inequitable. Alaska receives $7 from the federal government for each dollar of gas tax revenue its motorists pay. Ohio gets back 90 cents.

A provision in the Senate version of the highway bill would boost Ohio's payback to a more reasonable 95 cents. Even so, lawmakers would be well justified in excising any money for Alaska's "bridges to nowhere."



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