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A Tale of Three Bridges

memorial-bridge2Portsmouth, November 21, 2008—Until three years ago it looked fairly certain that the U.S. Congress was going to allocate almost $452 million to build two bridges in Alaska. The Gravina Island bridge would be longer than the Golden Gate, taller than the Brooklyn Bridge, and connect the town of Ketchikan (pop. 7,368) and Gravina Island (pop. 50). The Knik Arm Bridge, two miles long, would shorten the commute between Wasilla and Anchorage by one hour.

Logic would seem to argue that such a large expenditure for projects which would benefit so few would be hard to justify. But logic had the unenviable task of arguing against Alaska’s senior Senator, Theodore “Ted” Stevens, and the state’s sole Representative, Don Young. Both are Republicans.*

In Congress, power accrues with longevity. Stevens, who remembers selling newspapers with headlines about the Lindbergh kidnapping, has represented Alaska in the Senate since 1968. Young first went to the House just four years later. Over the next thirty-plus years, they earned reputations as two of the most notable pork farmers in Congress.

Things were looking good for the bridges—until Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans. Shortly afterwards, Sen. Tom Colburn—a Republican from landlocked Oklahoma, of all places—introduced an amendment which would have redirected $125 million of the Alaska bridge funding to New Orleans, for the repair of the heavily damaged I-10 Twin Span Bridge across Lake Pontchartrain. This provoked interesting reactions from both Stevens and Young.

An article published at the time in the Anchorage Daily News said “Stevens threatened to quit, to become a ‘wounded bull on the floor of this Senate,’ and he vowed that if his colleagues passed the bill, ‘I will be taken out of here on a stretcher.'”

For his part, Young said victims of Hurricane Katrina could “kiss my ear!” His dedication to the Knik Arm Bridge might best be gauged by the fact that if it were built, its official name would be “Don Young’s Way.” Or perhaps by the fact that its construction would greatly increase the value of land owned by his son-in-law.

Not for the first time, bluster trumped logic. Coburn’s amendment went down to a lopsided defeat. But the national shame heaped on Alaska’s Congression-al delegation—and Congress in general—led to the stripping of the funding’s “earmarks.” The money went to Alaska, but not for the Bridges to Nowhere. Eventually even Governor Sarah Palin, long a staunch supporter of the projects, pulled the plug.

Almost. According to an October 15 article in the Anchorage Press, the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, aka KABATA, is still “chugging away on the 18th floor of the Robert B. Atwood building downtown, spending millions in public funds in hopes the private sector will one day invest in a toll bridge from downtown Anchorage across the Knik Arm to Point MacKenzie…”

“The Alaska Legislature created KABATA in 2003, and the agency has spent about $46 million in federal and state tax dollars since then. It’s mostly federal money, and much of it went to contractors creating designs and writing permit applications. A KABATA-authored fact sheet says about $105 million has been allocated by Congress, so far. The bridge’s environmental impact statement alone cost $36 million.” [Emphasis added.]

Stevens was just narrowly defeated in his bid for re-election. If it hadn’t been for his seven recent felony convictions for taking bribes from VECO Corporation, an Alaskan oil services company, he’d be going back to the Senate.

Young, who has spent more than $250,000 in campaign contributions for legal fees relating to federal investigations of whether he, too, received unreported gifts from VECO, seems to have been re-elected. His opponent conceded the recent election on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Back In The Lower 48

The first bridge to offer toll-free passage over the Piscataqua River between Portsmouth and Kittery was completed in 1923. As befits something shared by frugal Maine and New Hampshire yankees, the bridge is actually a dual-purpose structure. Dubbed the Memorial Bridge, it also serves as a monument to “Sailors and Soldiers of New Hampshire who participated in the World War 1917-1919.”

The cost of building the bridge was $2,000,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ online inflation calculator, that would be about $25.6 million in 2007 dollars.

Like anything or anyone 85 years old, the bridge shows serious signs of wear. Transportation officials representing the two states have been discussing a rehabilitation project for years. This year, they finally agreed to solicit bids for the project. The estimated cost was $44 million.

Alas, the two bids received were for $59 and $70 million—the two states were at least $15 million short. Even in good times, both states are notorious penny-pinchers. New Hampshire officials proposed saving $7 million by forgoing the historical restoration. Perhaps they could just burn off troublesome parts like the dedication plaque and the big gilded eagle with an acetylene torch, and drop them into the water. Maine, not to be outdone in cheapness, said no way.

So here we are with a venerable war memorial on the verge of falling into the river and creating a hazard to navigation, shutting down the only ice-free deepwater port in New Hampshire, the source of virtually all the state’s road salt, and much of its heating oil. Not to mention closing the point of departure for however many tons of scrap metal per year. And forcing shipyard workers to drive however many extra miles to get to work. And blocking an escape route if Seabrook cooks off.

Please — can’t someone find us an earmark for a lousy fifteen million bucks?

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* Only Young, though, “during a debate on the right of native Alaskans to sell the sex organs of endangered animals as aphrodisiacs … whipped out the eighteen-inch penis bone of a walrus and brandished it like a sword on the House floor.” [Rolling Stone, Oct. 17, 2006] It seems to be something of a habit: “Young … at a 1994 hearing … waved an 18-inch oosik—the penis bone of the walrus—at Mollie Beattie, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Beattie had suggested that Alaskan Natives should be able to sell oosiks only as handicrafts, not uncarved, a proposal Young derided. The incident was especially embarrassing because Beattie is the first woman to head the Service, and the hearing marked her debut on the Hill.” [The Progressive]

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