In the latest chapter in the saga of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin seeking or accepting federal earmarks, we now learn that part of the funds she claims to have told Washington, D.C. “Thanks, But No Thanks” were actually used to construct a 3.2 mile road leading to nowhere, at a cost of $26 million to American taxpayers. In an article by Erika Hayasaki, reporting for the Los Angeles Times on September 19, 2008, questions still linger as to why Gov. Palin didn’t return the money to Washington after it became apparent the Gravina Bridge project the road was to connect to was dropped due to changing political tides.
The 3.2-mile-long partially paved “road to nowhere” meanders from a small international airport on Gravina Island, home to 50 people, ending in a cul-de-sac close to a beach.
Crews are working to finish it. But no one knows when anyone will need to drive it.
That’s because the $26-million road was designed to connect to the $398-million Gravina Island Bridge, more infamously known as the “bridge to nowhere.” Alaskan officials thought federal money would pay for the bridge, but Gov. Sarah Palin killed the project after it was ridiculed and Congress rescinded the money. Plans for the road moved forward anyway.
Some residents of Ketchikan — a city of 8,000 on a neighboring island where the bridge was to end — see the road as a symbol of wasteful spending that Palin could have curtailed. Some of them even accuse her of deception.
“Surely we won’t have to commute on the highway if there won’t be a bridge,” said Jill Jacob, who has been writing and calling the governor’s office for the last two years to protest the road. “It’s a dead-end highway, a dead-end road.”
Since Palin was named the Republican vice presidential nominee two weeks ago, she has been boasting that she told Congress that Alaska didn’t want the hundreds of millions that had been earmarked for the bridge.
But in 2006, Palin stood before residents in this region during her gubernatorial campaign and expressed support for the bridge. It became apparent after she was elected that the state’s portion would be too costly, and Palin ordered transportation officials to abandon the project.
She held on to the $223 million in federally earmarked funds for other uses, such as the Gravina road, approved by her predecessor.
“Here’s my question,” said Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein. “If Sarah Palin is not being truthful on an issue like the Gravina bridge project, what else is she not being truthful about?”
Alaska transportation officials say construction of the road began in June 2007 because the state was still hoping to build a bridge, and “you need that highway access,” said Roger Wetherell, a department spokesman.
But Weinstein, who backed the bridge project, said that Palin should have redirected the money. “If the bridge was canceled, give the money back, or get the earmark removed, or redesign the road so it’s better for development,” he said. “Especially if you’re opposed to earmarks, and now you’re telling the world you’re opposed to earmarks.”
His frustration came to a head after he heard Republican presidential nominee John McCain and Palin tout her reputation as a reformer focused on saving taxpayer money. He didn’t feel much better when a campaign ad called them “the original mavericks,” and said: “She stopped the ‘bridge to nowhere.’ ”
Weinstein need only glance across the salmon-rich waters separating his city from Gravina Island to see what he believes are millions of dollars being spent unnecessarily. Why, he asks, didn’t she stop that?
The bridge was championed by Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, both Republicans, who pushed the project through Congress in 2005 using earmarks — the controversial practice used by lawmakers to slip targeted spending into bills without public scrutiny. But that earmark quickly became the target of widespread public criticism and was labeled the “bridge to nowhere.” Members of Congress eventually stripped the funds that had been designated for the bridge from a larger spending bill, but allowed Alaska to keep $223 million for other needs.
In September 2007, Palin canceled the bridge project, blaming a funding shortage and lack of congressional support: “Ketchikan desires a better way to reach the airport, but a $398-million bridge is not the answer,” she said in a statement.
Susan Walsh, a nurse who lives on Gravina Island, remembers attending that Chamber of Commerce meeting. When Palin withdrew her support for the bridge, Walsh figured the road project would have died with it. “It was just stupid,” she said.
Jacob, the woman who has been protesting the road for two years with a letter-writing campaign on behalf of the Tongass Conservation Society in Ketchikan, says: “We begged her to stop.”
An April 2007 letter to Palin read: “I am writing to encourage you to do away with the Gravina Access Highway. At about $8 million per mile of public money, this is a fiscal mistake.”
State officials said alternatives to the $398-million bridge could include improved ferry service or less costly bridges that would link to the Gravina road. “Gov. Palin understood that a more cost-efficient, sensible solution could still be implemented” in place of the original bridge plan, said Maria Comella, a spokeswoman for Palin’s campaign.
On a clear day recently, Mayor Weinstein flew over Gravina Island, looking down on the nearly completed road. “When Sarah Palin goes on national television and says: ‘I told Congress, “Thanks but no thanks,” ‘ it’s not true,” he said. “The implication is we didn’t take the money. But we did.”
The mayor said he was considering posting a sign on the road for the rest of the world to see. He said it would read: “Built Under Gov. Sarah Palin, Paid for With Federal Earmarks.”
On ProPublica.org there are excellent interactive maps detailing the Gravina Island Bridge (“Bridge to Nowhere”) and the newly built Gravina Island Highway (“Road to Nowhere”). Although various governmental watchdogs urged Governor Sarah Palin to cancel the wasteful road project, she went ahead with the construction, even though Alaska’s Department of Transportation is currently analyzing nine other alternatives, including six bridges and three ferries.