Alaska should sit out of Katrina blame game

Posted: Friday, September 16, 2005

There’s been lots of blame going around lately in the wake of the Katrina disaster, and the state of Alaska has gotten more than its share.

Criticism has focused on Rep. Don Young, who earlier this year secured millions in federal funding for a number of high-profile transportation projects here, including two bridges — one linking the city of Ketchikan with its island-based airport and one to cross Knik Arm from Anchorage to Point MacKenzie.

Both projects have been derided as so-called “bridges to nowhere” that would waste billions of taxpayer dollars only to glorify the reputations of Alaska’s congressional delegation. As such, they’ve been among the first projects to come under fire as the nation has slowly awoke to the devastation caused by faulty flood preparations along the Gulf Coast, specifically in New Orleans.

On the surface, the arguments that Alaska is stepping up to chow down on an extra-large helping of pork seem valid. Gravina Island, where Ketchikan’s airport is located, is home to only about 50 people. So it’s easy to say millions of dollars are being used to link a small town with a ghost town. And Point Mackenzie, with its sparse population, is a similarly easy target for critics.

But recent editorials by the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times criticizing Alaska’s share of federal funding have chosen to overlook a couple key facts that make this criticism less valid.

First, both bridges would serve vital functions. Ketchikan’s bridge would enable area residents to drive to the airport, rather than having to take a ferry. This would eliminate some of the risk associated with boat travel, while also saving transportation costs in the long run. As for “Don Young’s Way,” the proposed bridge across Knik Arm, well, it’s no secret that Anchorage is running out of real estate. Allowing growth across the arm would both ease crowding and enable the city to grow economically and culturally.

These are good reasons to build bridges, and they have nothing to do with flooding in Louisiana. In fact, as Young pointed out last week, the money used to build levees doesn’t even come from the same pool as bridge money.

Also overlooked in this debate is that Alaska is woefully behind the rest of the nation in infrastructure, particularly roads. Only a small percentage of the state is even accessible by road, meaning we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

In addition, over the past 30 years or so, Alaska has supplied nearly one-fifth of the nation’s domestic oil supply. When production in the Gulf went down as a result of the most recent hurricane, Alaska wells continued pumping.

Blame for the current crisis can be spread to any number of places, but Alaska seems like an odd place to pick on. To single out our state for blame simply because we desire to improve our own infrastructure should not be tolerated. To argue that our state isn’t doing its share to help the nation in this time of need is both misinformed and unfair.

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