Alaska Abandons 'Bridge to Nowhere' Project

Some called it a bridge to the future. Others called it the bridge to nowhere.

On Friday, Alaska decided the bridge really was going nowhere, officially abandoning the project in Ketchikan that became a national symbol of federal pork-barrel spending.

While the move closes a chapter that has brought the state reams of ridicule, it also leaves open wounds in a community that fought for decades to get federal help.

"We went through political hot water — tons of it — and not just nationally but internationally," Ketchikan-Gateway Borough Mayor Joe Williams said. "We have nothing to show for it."

The $398 million bridge would have connected Ketchikan, on one island in southeastern Alaska, to its airport on another nearby island.

Gov. Sarah Palin said Friday the project was $329 million short of full funding.

"We will continue to look for options for Ketchikan to allow better access to the island," the Republican governor said. "The concentration is not going to be on a $400 million bridge."

Palin directed state transportation officials to find the most "fiscally responsible" alternative for access to the airport. She said the best option would be to upgrade the ferry system.

Ketchikan is Alaska's entry port for northbound cruise ships that bring more than 1 million visitors yearly. Every flight into Gravina Island requires a 15-minute ferry ride to reach the more densely populated Revillagigedo Island.

The town — seven blocks wide and eight miles long — has little room to grow. Local officials have said access to Gravina Island, population 50, is needed for the town and its economy to grow.

They called the state's decision premature, saying it came without warning.

"For somebody who touts process and transparency in getting projects done, I'm disappointed and taken aback," said state Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan. "We worked 30 years to get funding for this priority project."

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, both Republicans, championed the project through Congress two years ago, securing more than $200 million for the bridge between Revillagigedo and Gravina islands.

Under mounting political pressure over pork projects, Congress stripped the earmark — or stipulation — that the money be used for the airport, but still sent the money to the state for any use it deemed appropriate.

Stevens spokesman Aaron Saunders said Friday the senator was interested in how the state ultimately used the money. A spokeswoman for Young said the congressman would have no comment.

Just last month, presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said pet projects could have played a role in a Minnesota bridge collapse that killed 13 people earlier this year.

"Maybe if we had done it right, maybe some of that money would have gone to inspect those bridges and other bridges around the country," McCain told a group of people in a town-hall style meeting in Ankeny, Iowa.

"Maybe the 200,000 people who cross that bridge every day would have been safer than spending $233 million of your tax dollars on a bridge in Alaska to an island with 50 people on it."

On Friday, Leo von Scheben, commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, said the bridge money could be used to build roads in Alaska.

"There is no question we desperately need to construct new roads in this state, including in southeast Alaska, where skyrocketing costs for the Alaska Marine Highway System present an impediment to the state's budget and the region's economy," von Scheben said in a statement.

The governor urged Alaskans not to dwell on the bridge.

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