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Young's bounty for Alaska needs re-evaluation
Anchorage Daily News

August 11, 2005

Alaska Congressman Don Young was mighty proud of the big federal earmarks he put into the transportation bill, especially for two big Alaska bridge projects. With help from U.S. Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Young bagged $229 million for the Knik Arm Crossing and almost as much for a project connecting Ketchikan to Gravina Island.

Critics inside and outside the state have questioned the wisdom of tying up so much federal road money in two projects that serve sparsely settled areas. Those questions take on even more force now.

Contrary to what Alaskans had been led to believe, the projects are not federal freebies. More than half the money earmarked for the two bridges will be deducted dollar for dollar from Alaska's annual share of federal gas tax collections. Combined with other earmarked projects, the new bill ties up $941 million of Alaska's federal transportation aid over the next five years. Roughly 60 percent of those funds will be deducted straight from the state's regular share of annual federal transportation payments.

Result? Despite a 30 percent increase in funding for Alaska, the new bill actually leaves the state with less discretionary federal road money than before.

That isn't necessarily a fatal flaw. Some earmarked projects are already on the state's transportation planning list. The fact that those earmarks are paid from Alaska's annual stream of road money probably doesn't matter too much. If the state had fewer earmarks, those projects would probably get funded from Alaska's pot of discretionary road money anyway.

But what does matter is the huge amount of money devoted to the two big bridges. The earmarked money does not pay the entire tab for either project. Gravina is at least $20 million short, according to state transportation planner Jeff Ottesen. Less than half of the proposed Knik Arm Crossing is funded - and that assumes the price tag stays at $600 million, never a safe bet with huge, one-of-a-kind public works projects.

Alaska is on risky terrain here. We are close to being locked into projects that will suck huge sums away from other, more important, road projects.

That might not be an issue if either of the bridges served an urgent transportation need or even headed off an emerging bottleneck. But the basic point of each is to connect a city to remote areas with lots of undeveloped land. The two big bridges are classic examples of speculative infrastructure. They open the way for costly suburban sprawl. That's especially true in the southern end of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, right across from Anchorage.

Mat-Su is already growing faster than the borough's finances can handle. Two decades of explosive growth have required a steady stream of new schools and roads. As more people flood in, they demand more urbanized public services like libraries, animal control and police protection.

Yet Mat-Su is scrambling to keep up with the bare essentials: schools and roads. Steadily rising property taxes have provoked a mini-revolt. The borough Assembly just voted in a tax cap, to head off a similar measure pressed forward by voter initiative.

Under those circumstances, the borough will have real trouble delivering basic services if thousands of people flood the open country across from Anchorage. It is unlikely to be able to contribute much tax revenue toward the $300-plus million hole in the Knik Arm Crossing's budget.

Despite Don Young's best efforts, federal highway money for Alaska can't pay for everything the state wants or needs. It's not too late to take a hard look at whether his two proudest projects - Knik Arm Crossing and Ketchikan's Gravina Island - are the highest and best use of Alaska's limited federal transportation aid.


Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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