By LIZ RUSKIN
Anchorage Daily News
November 16, 2005
"I'm disappointed at the whole prospect of losing the bridges, but we'll just have to see how it comes out," the Alaska Republican said. "We have not seen the final form yet. It has not been done yet."
Details of the proposal were scarce this week, since the negotiators working on the annual transportation appropriations bill haven't finished their work. But Stevens said one possibility is that the state would get all of the bridge money, but wouldn't have to spend it on the bridges.
"That is what we're seeking, at the very least, to take the money that the state would get as (an) allocation, to use it as sees fit," he said.
The bridges have proved to be a publicity nightmare for the $286 billion national highway law and Congress in general.
The five-year law refigured the formula that distributes federal gas tax revenues among the states. Written by Alaska Rep. Don Young, it also "earmarked" spending to more the 6,000 specific construction projects around the country.
The projects attracted ridicule from critics in and out of Congress who thought the bill was too lavish. Conservative Republicans, environmentalists, editorial writers and comedians took particular aim at Alaska's bridge money, $229 million for a Knik Arm bridge in Anchorage and $223 million for a bridge between Ketchikan and Gravina Island. Critics quickly dubbed them "the bridges to nowhere," and they've become symbols of pork-barrel spending.
Alaskan supporters say the bridges will provide Anchorage and Ketchikan room to expand by building easier access to undeveloped land. Outside of Alaska, almost no one has a good word to say about the bridges.
If you say "bridges to nowhere" these days, everyone knows that you're talking about shameless government waste, says Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the few lawmakers to vote against the highway bill in July.
Flake has been pushing a revision that would rescind 10 percent of the highway bill's spending. Like the rumored Senate bill, his proposal also would remove all of the earmark language, but leave the money with the states.
The bridges and the rest of the highway spending are damaging the Republican image of fiscal responsibility, he argues.
"I maintain that we simply can't stand the public relations disaster of funding this many earmarks," Flake said last week.
States, he said, would welcome the freedom to spend their highway money how they want, he said, even if they only get 90 percent of it.
Young said too many Congress members have too much at stake in the highway bill to listen to Flake.
"He hasn't got any traction," Young said. "He's a dog lying on ice right now: He's scratching a lot but he doesn't go anywhere."
Would Alaska be happy if the state got the $452 million in bridge funding but was free to spend it on anything it wanted?
John Katz, Gov. Frank Murkowski's spokesman in Washington, said the governor, who supports both bridges, was happy with the bill as it was when it was signed into law.
"But Senator Stevens is doing the best he can under difficult circumstances," Katz said. "By preserving the state's allocation, the net effect as we understand it, is the funds will be made available and will be subject to the state's usual decision making process for transportation priorities."
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