MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Fiscal conservatives in Congress are combing through spending bills to find ways to offset the cost of damage from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Budget hawks have targeted the federal highway bill and, in particular, two bridge projects in Alaska with a price tag of nearly $500 million. Dubbed bridges to nowhere, they have become symbols of congressional pork-barrel spending. From Alaska, Elizabeth Arnold reports.
ELIZABETH ARNOLD reporting:
It's easy to pick a fight with Alaska. It's far away, not even a contiguous state, and even on US maps, it's relegated to a small box down in the corner with Hawaii. Alaska also receives more federal money per capita than any other state. And its congressional delegation takes pride in bringing home the bacon. Asked recently about the idea of forfeiting the state's share of highway money to offset hurricane costs, Alaska's congressman and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Don Young, had this response.
Representative DON YOUNG (Republican, Alaska): They can kiss my ear. It's that simple. That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard of.
ARNOLD: The projects, being offered up by everyone from Pat Buchanan to The New York Times, are partial funding for two bridges. There's 229 million to connect the city of Anchorage with a remote mud flat and deep-water port called Point McKenzie. The goal is to ease projected future traffic congestion and housing needs. And there's 223 million for a bridge to connect the city of Ketchikan with its airport and Gravina Island, population 50, also with the hope of future expansion, not to mention better access for logging.
The federal money is just a fraction of the overall price tag, which is unusually large due to Alaska's extremes. The Anchorage bridge is planned to withstand earthquakes, ice floes and the huge tides of Cook Inlet. The Ketchikan bridge is designed to be high enough for massive cruise ships to pass under. Whether these are truly bridges to nowhere is debatable. Both access nearly uninhabited land, but supporters say the whole idea is to transform nowhere into somewhere.
Mr. HENRY SPRINGER (Engineer): I think what a lot of people don't realize is that Alaska is a developing state, that we are pretty late in the whole game, and they just can't envision that.
ARNOLD: Henry Springer is an engineer and executive director of the state's bridge authority. He's tired of the Bridges To Nowhere stuff. Once upon a time, he says the San Francisco Bay Bridge and even the Brooklyn Bridge might have been dubbed the same.
Mr. SPRINGER: I mean, every night, you know, visit the lower 48s and you go to Los Angeles or big metropolitan areas, and you see all them spaghetti highways and overpasses and underpasses, you know, so they come up here and they don't realize that we've got five highways and that's it, and then our land mass is five times bigger than where they are and, you know, then--they just don't have the understanding.
ARNOLD: Still, not every Alaskan is a bridge backer, and there's growing embarrassment about the national attention, especially when hurricane victims are held up as more worthy recipients of federal dollars. Les Gara represents an Anchorage district in the state Legislature.
State Representative LES GARA (Alaska): Do we need it? You know, I'm truthfully ambivalent about it. Is it worth the price tag? Boy, I've got questions about that. Is this bridge the most important thing in the country right now? No.
ARNOLD: Whether Alaskans are truly supportive of either bridge project will be fleshed out when more state dollars are required and the prospect of paying tolls is added to the overall cost. But for now, opinion over the matter is playing out on bumper stickers. The most recent: Build the Bridge Alaska to Honolulu; It Makes More Sense. For NPR News, Elizabeth Arnold, Anchorage.
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