Bridge to disaster

Congressional Republicans, already running scared, decided that the notorious “bridge to nowhere” was a bridge too far. It had become a public and all-too-visible symbol of their spendthrift ways and House GOP members complained that they were taking a lot of flak about the bridge from the folks back home.

To recap: Two very powerful Alaska Republicans, Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens, added as an earmark to the huge highway bill $223 million for a bridge linking Ketchikan, pop. 8,000, with an island, pop. 50, that would spare the residents a seven-minute ferry ride to the airport. Taxpayers for Common Sense calculated that every trip over the bridge, almost as long as the Golden Gate, would cost the taxpayers $43. There were actually two bridges to nowhere. The two lawmakers also earmarked a similar amount for starting work on a second bridge to nowhere_ estimated final cost, $1.5 billion _ linking Anchorage with a remote and little-used port.

Young and Stevens were not alone. Lawmakers added over 6,000 earmarks to the bill at an additional cost of $24 billion; the Alaskans were just placed where they could make off with more than most.

But the bridges became an issue after Hurricane Katrina when some lawmakers proposed to redirect that money to rebuilding a vital bridge on Louisiana’s heavily traveled Interstate 10. Stevens threatened to resign, a bluff the Senate should have called just to see what would happen. He prevailed, but the issue of the bridge to nowhere as an example of congressional, and especially Republican, excess would not go away.

To make it go away, congressional negotiators stripped the two earmarked bridges out of the appropriations bill that would pay for them. But there was a catch: The state of Alaska gets to keep the $454 million set aside for the bridges and it is free to use the money for any transportation projects it pleases _ including, if it likes, the bridges to nowhere.

But that means campaigning members of Congress can argue, with a straight face even, that they “killed” the bridge to nowhere. And if you believe that, they have a bridge to sell you.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)