Ketchikan bridge project garners Young a Golden Fleece

Posted: Friday, June 13, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) A Washington, D.C., watchdog group has given U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, a Golden Fleece Award for pushing a Ketchikan bridge project the group calls a boondoggle.

The group Taxpayers for Common Sense said the project to link Ketchikan with Gravina Island could cost taxpayers for years to come.

''It exemplifies the rampant problem of pork barrel spending in the federal government,'' said Shannon Collier, a policy analyst for the group.

Gravina Island, where Ketchikan's airport is located, is reached by ferry now. Young, who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is seeking federal funding for the $230 million bridge project.

So far he and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, have steered about $22 million in federal money toward engineering, environmental review and other preliminary work.

Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor Mike Salazar disagrees that the project is a waste of money.

''Ketchikan can't even get to the airport without riding on a ferry,'' Salazar said. ''There's land over there that belongs to the borough, belongs to the state, belongs to the mental health trust, and it can't be developed very well without having access to it.''

The project is actually two bridges, one connecting Ketchikan to Pennock Island and another connecting Pennock to Gravina Island. The state's $230 million price tag also includes six miles of road and a parking garage, said Pat Kemp, an engineer with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Steve Hansen, a spokesman for Young, said the criticism won't prompt Alaska's only congressman to drop his support for the project.

''The people of Ketchikan have been working for years to have a bridge to link them to the island,'' Hansen said. ''The ferry system is ineffective. They need the bridge to also expand their land base to generate new economic development.''

That's one of the reasons Taxpayers for Common Sense opposes the project, Collier said. The group contends the bridge is about opening up access to 37 million board feet of old growth timber in the Tongass National Forest. She said the federal government has historically lost money on its Tongass timber sales.

''This bridge is really just corporate welfare to timber companies in their search for cheap, taxpayer-subsidized forests,'' Collier said.

Salazar said timber companies don't need a bridge to cut wood.

''They've logged all over this state, or all over Southeast Alaska, with floating logging camps, for Pete's sake,'' Salazar said.

Hansen did not dispute that the bridge is about opening the island to timber sales and other development. He complained that Taxpayers for Common Sense is aligned with environmental groups on timber and transportation issues.

The group describes itself as a nonpartisan budget watchdog dedicated to cutting wasteful spending and subsidies.

The group also said the bridge will harm tourism and recreation because cruise ships will have to take a more hazardous route to avoid the bridge, and floatplanes will have to take a different flight path.

But Kemp said the current proposal would not interfere with cruise traffic because the bridge over the channel the ships use would be 250 feet high.

Not everyone in Ketchikan supports the project. Local residents Carol Cairnes and Charlie Arteaga sent out a news release Thursday endorsing the award. They say the project will cause navigation problems and mean less money is available for other transportation and maintenance needs.

The state is working on an environmental impact statement for the bridges, which should be ready for the public to comment in September.

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