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Palin Defended 'Bridge to Nowhere' to 'Spinmeisters'

Editor's Note: This story was first published earlier today in Politico.

Sarah Palin supported the Bridge to Nowhere long after it had become an icon of wasteful federal spending.

Wikimedia Commons By the time she held up a T-shirt proclaiming her support for the bridge during her 2006 campaign for governor, it already had been derided across the Lower 48 as a monument to waste, including by her current running mate, Sen. John McCain.

Palin was campaigning for the votes of Alaskans who wanted the bridge and who felt aggrieved by all the criticism it had attracted. The shirt said that she was one of them, not one of those critics who didn't even know the local zip code. This was tiny Ketchikan, the "nowhere" to be reached by the bridge -- or as the T-shirt defiantly proclaimed, this was "NOWHERE, ALASKA 99901."

Just in case there was any doubt about her position, Palin -- who grew up in Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna Valley -- used some local slang to bond with the crowd, declaring, "OK, you've got Valley trash standing here in the middle of Nowhere. I think we're going to make a good team as we progress that bridge project."

In fact, Palin supported two Alaska bridges -- the planned Gravina Island Bridge and its even costlier sister, the Knik Arm Bridge. The congressional fight over them had come during a time of indictments, guilty pleas and jail terms for lawmakers, federal officials and lobbyists. The parade of convictions left the clear impression that corruption in Washington was spiraling out of control, and that pork-barrel spending was at the heart of it.

The bridges had even triggered an acrimonious debate on the Senate floor in November 2005, four months after Congress had approved a $454 million downpayment for them. The donnybrook was prompted by the epic storm that shocked the nation with its devastation in late August 2005. Hurricane Katrina had destroyed one of New Orleans' most critical bridges. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, tried but failed to push through an amendment to divert Alaska bridge money to help rebuild the bridge.

Alaska's two "Bridges to Nowhere" were notorious enough before Katrina. But the hurricane's devastation put them in even starker relief: How could the U.S. government find almost half a billion dollars for two monumental bridges in a sparsely developed corner of Alaska when it could afford only $42.2 million to shore up the levees of New Orleans the year before the storm hit? The money Congress had provided for the levees was less than one-tenth of the amount Alaska's small but powerful congressional delegation had tucked into a highway bill for the two controversial bridges.

Running for Governor

Back when Palin was running for governor, she seemed eager to get the federal money while Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) could still use their insider muscle to bring home Alaska's bacon. However, the views of her opponents in the race and some state transportation officials increasingly reflected a reality she would accept only after being elected: The federal government, already embarrassed by the initial money for the bridges to nowhere, was not going to provide the additional hundreds of millions needed to complete the projects. And the state couldn't afford to make up the difference.

In the weeks leading up to the election, the Alaska Daily News asked Palin whether she would support continued state funding for the bridges, if elected.

"Yes, I would like to see Alaska’s infrastructure projects built sooner rather than later," she replied. "The window is now – while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist."

During a televised debate, she was asked if she would cancel a contract to build an access road on Gravina Island intended as a connector to the bridge.

"I'm not going to stand in the way of progress," she replied, adding once again, as she so often did during the campaign, that the time to act on these projects was while the Alaska congressional delegation had spending clout. Already, the GOP was fearful that the taint of corruption could cost the party control of the House and Senate in the upcoming election, as it did.

During the debate, her independent opponent, Andrew Halcro shot back, "I'm not in favor of standing in the way of progress either, but this isn't progress. This is a road to a bridge that will never be built. That money certainly could be utilized elsewhere in the state."

Two Years Later

Palin's stance when she was running for governor appears at odds with her current posture as the earmark reformer who struck down the nation's most infamous boondoggle. When McCain introduced her to the nation in Dayton, Ohio, days before the Republican National Convention, she said, "I have championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress. In fact, I told Congress, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' on that 'Bridge to Nowhere.' If our state wanted a bridge, I said we'd build it ourselves."

The McCain campaign says that when it really counted, once Palin was in the statehouse, she pulled the trigger and killed the project.

But her actions then may have been more a bow to post-Katrina political realities and state budgetary needs. In a Sept. 21, 2007 written statement (PDF), Palin announced that the state would not proceed with the bridge -- at least not on the grand scale envisioned. But the money would not go to New Orleans. Nor would it go back to the federal treasury. Alaska would keep the $454 million.

"Much of the public's attitude toward Alaska bridges is based on inaccurate portrayals of the projects here," she wrote. "But we need to focus on what we can do, rather than fight over what has happened."

One of the outside critics Palin alluded to was her current running mate.

In July 2005, when Young and Stevens tucked the bridge money into a five-year, $286 billion highway bill, McCain blasted the maneuver: "I want no part of this. This legislation is not -- I emphasize not -- my way of legislating."

A Misunderstanding?

That outsiders might get the wrong idea about the bridges is understandable.

The $400 million Gravina Island Bridge would connect a coastal island of 7,000 to an undeveloped island of 50. It would have been longer and higher than the Bosphorus Bridge connecting the land masses of Europe and Asia.

The Knik Arm Bridge, bearing a price tag ranging up to $2 billion, would cross a narrow portion of the Cook Inlet, substantially cutting the commuting time between the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, which includes Palin's hometown of Wasilla, and Anchorage, where she does most of her work as governor. It still has a green light from Palin.

While money for both bridges came out of the same bill, the Gravina Island Bridge became infamous as the "Bridge to Nowhere" because it would connect the small island of Revillagigedo -- and its main town, Ketchikan -- to the almost uninhabited island of Gravina.

Ketchikan, originally a fishing camp, is the first Alaskan port of call for cruise ships headed north. It's also a popular destination for salmon fishermen and boasts a renowned collection of totem poles. Tourism is a mainstay for the town, nestled at the base of a steep, Spruce-lined hillside along the Tongass Narrows.

It was that steep hillside, ultimately, that triggered calls for a bridge.

Because the sharp slope prevents even a small airport from being built there, one was built in 1973 just across the Tongass Narrows on Gravina. Ever since then, people have used a 15-minute ferry ride to shuttle between town and the airport.

Also since then, some of the residents of Ketchikan have called for a bridge to be built. Local views on the bridge are not monolithic. Some oppose it as a waste of money. Others say it would pave the way for harvesting Gravina Island’s abundant supply of timber, despoiling a Native American hunting, fishing and burial ground. In March 2002, the city council of the native village of Saxman on Gravina Island passed a resolution opposing the bridge.

Back in Washington in 2005, a five-year highway bill, the mother of all pork-barrel bills, was rumbling through Congress. Stevens and Young saw their chance to snatch $454 million for the two bridges. At the time, the two were perfectly positioned to deliver the money: Stevens was the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Young headed the House committee that oversaw the drafting of the bill there, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

In late July 2005, a House-Senate conference committee that included Stevens and Young agreed on a compromise version of the five-year highway bill. It had a cumbersome but politically correct name -- the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) (PDF).

Scattered throughout the 835-page agreement were five separate earmarks totaling $231 million for the Knik Arm Bridge and three earmarks totaling $223 million for the Gravina Island Bridge.

Congress quickly approved the gravy boat and sent it to President Bush for his signature. But it didn't travel up Pennsylvania Avenue without a broadside from McCain.

Ticking off a long list of dubious projects, including the Gravina Island Bridge, which he referred to as the "Bridge to Nowhere," McCain said, "If you had asked me years ago, I would have said that the combination of war, record deficits and the largest public debt in the country's history would constitute a sufficient 'perfect storm' to break Congress out of the spending addiction it is so famous for. I would have been wrong.”

Bush signed the legislation into law on Aug. 10, 2005 -- less than three weeks before the real perfect storm, Katrina, broke through the Crescent City's rain-soaked levees. A year earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers had asked for $105 million to shore up the city's levees, but Congress approved only $42.2 million.

Outraged, Sen. Coburn seized on the fiscal year 2006 highway funding bill, which was separate from the five-year road bill and still under consideration in the Senate, to redirect $75 million of the money already approved for the Alaska bridges to New Orleans. It would have helped pay for the replacement of the Twin Span Bridge, which had been destroyed by Katrina. The bridge carries Interstate 10 traffic between New Orleans and Slidell, La., and is seen as vital to New Orleans' recovery.

As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Stevens controlled the purse strings in the Senate. And he was incensed by the Coburn amendment. On the Senate floor, on Oct. 21, 2005, he made the ultimate gesture of defiance toward the amendment: He threatened to resign if his colleagues approved it. They didn't. Construction of an $800 million replacement bridge is under way in New Orleans, but without any of Alaska's bridge money.

It had been a tough battle, but Stevens and Young had prevailed. Alaska could keep the money, although the bill no longer required that it be spent on the bridge. Congress left that decision to the state.

Nine months later, in August 2006, when Palin was running for governor, she told a local newspaper, "We need to come to the defense of Southeast Alaska when proposals are on the table like the bridge and not allow the spinmeisters to turn this project or any other into something that's so negative."

After being sworn in as governor in December 2006, however, her comments about the bridge became more opaque. The two projects did not appear in her budget. And on Sept. 21, 2007, she released a statement (PDF) announcing that the Gravina Island Bridge would not go forward as planned. The state would look for a "fiscally responsible alternative."

"Ketchikan desires a better way to reach the airport, but the $398 million bridge is not the answer," she said, leaving open the possibility that the "Bridge to Nowhere" might be resurrected in a more modest form. Alaska's Department of Transportation says it still has $73 million of the federal money set aside for that “better way to reach the airport.”

Eleven months later, Palin stood next to McCain in Dayton, Ohio, and for the first time publicly denounced the Gravina Island Bridge as the "Bridge to Nowhere."

"I've stood up to the old politics as usual," she told the cheering crowd.

ProPublica reporter Paul Kiel and Director of Research Lisa Schwartz contributed to this report.

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