By LIZ RUSKIN
Anchorage Daily News
January 11, 2006
Ashdown, spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense, was scouting for a wasteful government project his Washington-based group could shame with its 2002 "Golden Fleece Award" when an Alaska environmentalist told him of a proposed bridge, a very big bridge, in a small town called Ketchikan.
To Ashdown, it sounded like a gold-plated boondoggle.
"I got very excited about it. It's hard to find new stories about government waste," Ashdown said.
He and his co-workers were talking it over at a Capitol Hill pub when Ashdown was struck by an idea.
"I remember just sort of yelling out at the bar: 'It's a bridge to nowhere!' "
The name wasn't exactly original. Controversial roads and bridges have been called "to nowhere" before. Bridge foes in Ketchikan said it was one of several pejoratives in circulation for years. But Ashdown thought he'd hit upon a descriptive handle that could draw the country's attention to the distant project.
Has it ever.
Hundreds of newspaper stories and editorials have mentioned Ketchikan's "bridge to nowhere." So have a full alphabet of television networks: ABC, CBS, CNN, CNBC, NBC, PBS, and more. Nearly every news story about the project used the term.
These are bridge facts, as Ashdown was pushing and the media recounted: It was to be higher than the Brooklyn Bridge and nearly as long as the Golden Gate. It would link the city of Ketchikan to Gravina Island, pop. 50, and it was a favored project of Alaska's sole congressman, Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
Despite a gathering crescendo of criticism, Congress awarded the bridge $223 million in a bill the president signed into law last August.
Alaska's congressional delegation vigorously defended the bridge, saying it would give Ketchikan room to grow and provide better access to its airport on Gravina Island, now a short ferry ride away.
Americans, though, came to see the big project as an icon of government waste, like the Pentagon's $600 toilet seats in the 1980s.
No one outside Alaska toiled longer and harder to make that happen than Ashdown. He started agitating against the Ketchikan bridge nearly four years ago, back when the project was a mere $20 million federal earmark.
"I worked for six months to get network news interested. I was pitching this to everybody," he says.
The New York Times was the first national publication to bite, Ashdown said. The story quoted him.
"I must have said 'bridge to nowhere' 50 times in that interview," Ashdown recalls.
Once the story caught fire, Ashdown had all the statistics and catchy quips to fan the flames.
He later stretched the "bridge to nowhere" moniker to apply also to Anchorage's Knik bridge proposal, after he saw that Young wanted to give it even more federal money - $229 million - and that it was to be named Don Young's Way.
"They sort of became the twin towers of pork," Ashdown said.
But, he says, the Knik bridge wasn't as easy to unsell as the Ketchikan project. It lacks the negative allure of a big bridge going to an island with only 50 residents, he said.
He has been sitting a little higher in his office chair since Congress decided in November to strike the bridge mandate, although Alaska still gets the money. He and his co-workers believe erasing the bridge mandate is a victory over pork-barrel spending.
Critics say Ashdown's group talks like a pork slayer but is really in league with environmentalists to squelch economic development.
"They're advancing anti-development themes under the guise of taxpayer oversight," said Steve Hansen, a spokesman for Rep. Young.
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