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Alaska's bridges face new hurdle in Congress


June 11, 2006

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - An Illinois congressman has persuaded the U.S. House Appropriations Committee to pass an amendment that would block spending any federal money on Alaska's proposed Knik Arm and Ketchikan bridges.

Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, a Republican who represents suburban Chicago, offered his amendment to an appropriations bill for several federal agencies during a committee meeting Tuesday. It was approved in a voice vote, according to congressional staffers and Transportation Weekly, an e-mail newsletter.




The state has been counting on that federal money, because the bridges would cost hundreds of millions each.

It is not clear how far Kirk's amendment will get.

Steve Hansen, communications director for the House Transportation Committee, chaired by Alaska's Republican Rep. Don Young, said the full appropriations bill is expected to come to the House floor soon, perhaps as early as next week. Young likely will try to strike Kirk's amendment through either a floor vote or a procedural challenge, Hansen said.

"It's part of the whole package . . . but Congressman Young is opposed to it," Hansen said. "It's an issue of contention that most likely will be addressed on the floor."

In a press release and in a personal blog posted on his congressional Web site, Kirk lambasted the Ketchikan project.

"(Tuesday), I was proud to offer an amendment . . . to kill the Alaskan Bridge-to-Nowhere," Kirk said in those statements, calling it "wasteful spending" at a time when "34 percent of our roads and over 100,000 bridges in America are in need of repair."

Kirk didn't mention the Knik Arm bridge in his press release or in the blog, but a spokeswoman for the Appropriations Committee chairman said both bridges are part of the amendment.

In Alaska, spokesmen for Gov. Frank Murkowski and the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority said they were following the progress of the bridge-funding amendment but noted that it has a long way to go.

"Anytime something like this turns up in Congress we're concerned about it," Murkowski spokesman John Manly said. "We believe we will be able to manage the thing and get it out of there."

George Wuerch, the former Anchorage mayor who chairs the Knik toll authority, said Kirk's amendment apparently doesn't take any federal money away from Alaska but just specifies it can't be spent on the bridges.

Even if the amendment survives the full House and reconciliation with a Senate appropriations bill, the governor and state lawmakers might be able to use the old federal bridge money for other state projects and replace it with state dollars, Wuerch speculated.

He said he's very interested in what will happen to Kirk's amendment but added that a bigger priority for the toll authority now is finding ways to finance the 75 percent of the $600 million Knik Arm construction estimate that is not covered by existing state and federal funding.

Young and Sen. Ted Stevens, R- Alaska, originally earmarked about $450 million in federal spending for the two bridges in a highway bill passed last year. After the catastrophic hurricane damage in Louisiana and Mississippi last fall, however, the big Alaska projects were targeted by taxpayer groups and members of Congress from other states as expensive pork-barrel projects the nation could ill afford.

The earmarks mandating that the $450 million be spent on the bridges were removed, although the money remained in Alaska's share of federal transportation money. Murkowski, however, said the formula used to decide how federal money is distributed across Alaska limited the amount the state could appropriate to $93.6 million for the Knik project and about $91 million for the Ketchikan bridge.

Other state and federal grants bring the total available for the Knik project to about $138 million, according to toll authority figures.



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