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Critics get facts wrong about Alaska bridges
Anchorage Daily News


November 01, 2005

WASHINGTON - To much of America, Alaska's famous "bridges to nowhere" are icons of pork-barrel spending, and misstatements abound as the legend of the $452 million is retold.

ABC, NBC, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and countless columnists have all reported, for example, that one or both bridges would connect a small island "to the mainland."

Not true.

For the record: The Gravina bridge would connect the island of Gravina to the city of Ketchikan, which is on its own island. The Knik bridge, on the other hand, would connect Anchorage to Point MacKenzie, neither of which is on an island.

Many have said the bridges would be in "remote" parts of Alaska. The influential Capitol Hill journal CQ said the bridges would "benefit isolated areas of the state."

Say what you like about Ketchikan, but it is the state's fifth largest city. And Anchorage? You can't get less isolated and still be in Alaska.

Some critics say the Gravina bridge would benefit just 50 residents of Gravina Island - ignoring the other side of the bridge, where the 8,000 people of Ketchikan live.

Others just seem confused by the Gravina bridge rhetoric, apparently believing that the 50 people are the city dwellers and the bridge would connect them to an even less populated "nowhere."

Case in point: Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoman who was trounced when he tried to eliminate the bridge funding recently. He referred in the Senate debate to "Ketchikan, the very place where 50 people live, and a $230 million-plus bridge is going to service them."

"So you can get perspective on this - $230 million for 50 people . . . is enough money to buy each one of them a Learjet," he told his colleagues.

Well, sure. But if you divide the money among the residents on both sides of the bridge, there'd barely be enough to buy each of them a second-hand Cessna. Whole neighborhoods would have to pool their money to buy a used jet.

There's a lot of confusion about numbers. For the record: The transportation bill Congress passed this summer had $223 million for the Gravina bridge. The bill had a bit more for the Knik bridge, either $229 million or $231 million, depending on whether you count $2 million for an approach-route study. Nonetheless, everyone seems to think the Ketchikan bridge is the big one.

ABC's "This Week" was plagued with misstatements when it took on the Alaska bridges. Host George Stephanopoulos kicked off the discussion by describing the Alaska projects as "two bridges that connected the mainland to two tiny islands."

Then he played clips from the debate between Coburn and Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, whom Stephanopoulos described as "the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee." Stevens hasn't been chairman of that committee for nearly a year.

Then George Will chimed in, repeating the outdated title for Stevens and saying Alaska Congressman Don Young was on "House Appropriations," which he's not. But Will corrected himself on Young's committee: "House Ways and Means," he said. Wrong again. (Young is chairman of House Transportation.)

Does any of this matter? Not a bit.

The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post have all written scathing editorials in which they got the geography and the population of Ketchikan right, and still denounced the bridge money as a shameful waste. Besides, if the critics knew the Knik bridge wouldn't connect to an island but to a place Anchorage residents can drive to already, how would that help justify the project? Why tell them that even with $223 million for a Gravina bridge, nobody will be able drive out of Ketchikan?

Bridge opponents, by the way, aren't the only ones prone to hyperbole. When he defends the Alaska projects, Stevens sometimes harkens back to the days before there was a Golden Gate Bridge.

"I remember as a young man in California when someone suggested there ought to be a bridge, what we call the Golden Gate, over the San Francisco Harbor," he said during the recent Senate debate. "People said: You can't do that. That is a bridge to nowhere. I remember those words, 'a bridge to nowhere,' a bridge up in Marin County where hardly anybody lived."

Stevens must have matured early, and that "someone" must have spread the word awfully fast, because nearly 200,000 San Francisco Bay Area residents voted on the bond issue for the Golden Gate Bridge in 1930, just before Stevens' seventh birthday. Actual construction began when he was 9 and ended when he was 13.

Stevens clarified this week that he went to California when he was 13 and he recalls the controversy from then.

"By the time it was built, I was there, just as it opened, and it was criticized at the time," he said.


Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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