Transportation bill great for state, but worth the price?

What others say

Posted: Tuesday, August 16, 2005

When Don Young took over the U.S. House Transportation Committee, he promised to do what every chair of that committee has done: bring home the bacon to his district. And boy, did he deliver.

The newly passed surface transportation bill earmarks $941 million of projects for Alaska, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a critic of the bill. That's $1,500 for every man, woman and child in the state. Measured per resident, Alaska gets almost three times as much earmarked money as the next highest ranking state.

Earmarks are just a small portion — less than 10 percent — of the $284 billion divvied up by the bill. The vast majority of federal gas tax money is steered to states based on complicated formulas. And Alaska still will be the state that nets the most money for every dollar it collects in federal gas taxes. From 1998 to 2003, Alaska collected $6.41 for every $1 Alaskans paid the feds at the gas pump. No other state got even half that amount, and the new bill boosts Alaska's formula funding by 30 percent.

Rep. Young's bacon-toting brought him a barrage of national criticism along with the expected applause at home. He included two costly projects that presumably will seal his legacy: the Gravina Island double-bridge in Ketchikan, estimated to cost $315 million, and at least $229 million for the Knik Arm crossing from Anchorage to Point MacKenzie. Critics deride them as ''bridges to nowhere,'' the most extreme examples of pork-barrelling.

Let's just say they're the kind of investments only a rich nation, with an idiosyncratic and politicized system of federal transportation funding, could afford. The studies still haven't been done on whether these two bridges make economic sense. If these earmarks were determined by anything other than the clout of the person in charge of a key committee, they would — so far — be hard to justify.

Some Alaska skeptics of Rep. Young's two big projects wonder whether the money might have been better spent on more urgent transportation needs. Rep. Young says, in effect, Gravina and the Knik Arm crossing were use-it-or-lose-it deals. If he didn't grab money for them, he couldn't have grabbed it for other projects. The money would have just gone somewhere else, or stayed in the federal treasury.

That may be true, but it's important to remember there's no such thing as a free lunch. Neither of Rep. Young's two legacy projects is fully funded in the bill. With $229 million for Knik Arm, the state and toll bridge authority will have to throw in, at minimum, somewhere approaching twice that much from other sources.

Having to raise the extra money provides at least some degree of market test to the Knik Arm crossing. But even so, a project that's started with ''free'' federal money can still turn into a financial headache... .

A Knik Arm crossing would be one of Rep. Young's biggest legacies. It remains to be seen whether it will be an indispensable regional transportation link or just one more big Alaska dream that foundered on the rock of financial practicality.

— Anchorage Daily News,

Aug. 4

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