By TOM KIZZIA
Anchorage Daily News
September 02, 2008
"I told Congress, thanks but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere," Palin told the cheering McCain crowd, referring to Ketchikan's proposed Gravina Island Bridge.
But Palin was for the bridge before she was against it.
The Alaska governor campaigned in 2006 on a build-the-bridge platform, telling Ketchikan residents she felt their pain when politicians called them "nowhere." They're still feeling pain today in Ketchikan, over Palin's subsequent decision to use the bridge funds for other projects -- and over the timing of her announcement, which they say came in a predawn press release that seemed aimed at national news deadlines.
In 2007, Palin announced a change of course -- just a month after the Arizona Republican slammed the Ketchikan bridge for taking money that could have been used to shore up dangerous bridges like the one that collapsed in Minnesota.
"I think that's when the campaign for national office began," said Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Weinstein noted, the state is continuing to build a road on Gravina Island to an empty beach where the bridge would have gone -- because federal money for the access road, unlike the bridge money, would have otherwise been returned to the federal government.
It's a more complicated picture than the one drawn by McCain, a persistent critic of special-interest spending and congressional earmarks. He described Palin as "someone who's stopped government from wasting taxpayers' money on things they don't want or need."
McCain also claimed to have found, in Palin, "someone with an outstanding reputation for standing up to special interests and entrenched bureaucracies."
But Palin wasn't always against them. In September 2006, Palin showed up in Ketchikan on her gubernatorial campaign and said the bridge was essential for the town's prosperity.
She said she could feel the town's pain at being derided as a "nowhere" by prominent politicians, noting that her home town, Wasilla, had recently been insulted by the state Senate president, Ben Stevens.
"OK, you've got Valley trash standing here in the middle of nowhere," Palin said, according to an account in the Ketchikan Daily News. "I think we're going to make a good team as we progress that bridge project."
One year later, Ketchikan's Republican leaders said they were blindsided by Palin's decision to pull the plug.
Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said Saturday that as projected costs for the Ketchikan bridge rose to nearly $400 million, administration officials were telling Ketchikan that the project looked less likely. Local leaders shouldn't have been surprised when Palin announced she was turning to less costly alternatives, Leighow said. Indeed, Leighow produced a report quoting Palin, late in the governor's race, indicating she would also consider alternatives to a bridge.
As governor, Palin has presided over a state flooded with new oil revenues, brought by high oil prices and a new tax regime she pushed over industry objections. She vetoed $268 million in state capital projects this year, but her cuts came out of an unusually swollen capital budget.
"It would be hard not to appear conservative with the huge budget approved by the majority," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, the House minority leader.
Palin and the Legislature both were criticized by some conservatives for not making more efforts to slow growth in the state's operating budget.
At the same time, Palin deserves credit for trying to impose some objective criteria on the capital budget, which is essentially a huge exercise in earmarking by individual legislators, said Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River.
"I thought she showed some guts in doing that and really irritated some folks," said Dyson, adding that he disagreed with some of her decisions.
But it is the federally funded Bridge to Nowhere in Ketchikan that seems destined to make or break Palin's national reputation as a cost-cutting conservative.
The bridge was intended to provide access to Ketchikan's airport on lightly populated Gravina Island, opening up new territory for expansion at the same time. Alaska's congressional delegation endured withering criticism for earmarking $223 million for Ketchikan and a similar amount for a crossing of Knik Arm at Anchorage.
Congress eventually removed the earmark language but the money still went to Alaska, leaving it up to the administration of then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, a Republican, to decide whether to go ahead with the bridges or spend the money on something else.
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