‘Bridge to nowhere’ haunts Republicans

Federal spending on Alaska’s so-called “bridges to nowhere” is facing renewed attack in the House of Representatives, where conservatives say the $452 million has become an embarrassment that may haunt them at election time.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., says Alaska’s “bridges to nowhere” have become a national joke.

“Ask anyone what the ‘bridges to nowhere’ are and they will tell you they are a serious example of a Republican Congress bringing home some of the most expensive bacon in history on the taxpayers’ dime,” Flake said in a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Flake is pressing to rescind some of the bridge money as well as all the other spending in the national highway bill Congress passed this summer.

A bill he has introduced would take back 10 percent of all the spending the law authorizes, except the highway safety funds. It would also eliminate the mention of specific projects _ the Alaska bridges and thousands of other “earmarks” around the country _ but let states keep the money to spend on the projects of their choice.

Whether Flake succeeds or not, it is clear that the bridges are becoming part of America’s cultural lexicon as a synonym for pork-barrel spending, just as the $400 hammer was emblematic of defense contractor fraud in the 1980s.

Alaskan defenders of the bridges say the spans will promote the economic and physical growth of two Alaska cities _ Anchorage and Ketchikan.

The Knik Arm bridge, which received $229 million in the highway bill, will connect Anchorage to undeveloped acreage around Point MacKenzie. Supporters say that with better connecting roads, the bridge will provide commuters in the Mat-Su valleys an alternate route to downtown Anchorage.

The Ketchikan bridge, funded at $223 million, would connect that city to its airport and more land on Gravina Island. The ferry that now connects the two is unreliable in bad weather, Sen. Lisa Murkowski said during Senate debate last month.

But this isn’t how the issue has played on cable news shows, national magazines and the editorial pages of the largest newspapers.

Parade magazine, the Sunday newspaper insert that goes to 36 million homes, this week featured a “visit to the bridge to nowhere” and asked, “Are your tax dollars being wasted?”

Flake has compiled a “bridges to nowhere bibliography” showing that 158 stories on the bridges have appeared in print and online news outlets. Moreover, the bridge spending has been the butt of jokes on Comedy Central, Flake said, and it was mentioned on the CBS primetime drama “Threshold” last month as shorthand for government waste.

Flake is part of a group of conservative Republicans who have pushed the House leadership for $50 billion in cuts to government spending programs.

Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, had resisted their efforts to go beyond the $35 billion in cuts the leadership was backing, saying in mid-September that the budget had already been pared “pretty good.” A few weeks later, he changed his tone, apologizing to the conservative wing for falling short of their shared values.

DeLay, indicted Sept. 28 on campaign money laundering charges, has been sticking close to the conservative message ever since. Last week, in a speech to the Heritage Foundation think tank, he spoke of the Republican commitment to fiscal restraint.

“I’m not here to defend the highway bill,” he said when asked about the $286 billion legislation, sponsored by Alaska Congressman Don Young.

Without mentioning the bridges, DeLay expressed regret for the law’s excesses.

“The way it was allocated and the priorities probably _ not probably, ARE _ very ugly and nasty and we should do better,” he said.