Omnibus Money for Unnecessary Bridge?

This is a rush transcript from "Hannity," March 6, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

SEAN HANNITY, HOST: Tonight, Ainsley Earhardt takes a closer look at one of the provisions in the omnibus spending bill. It is a proposed bridge in the Florida Everglades that some are calling the new bridge to nowhere, while others say that without it the Everglades could fail.


AINSLEY EARHARDT, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This beautiful landscape in the Florida Everglades heights a contentious battle, one that stretches from here to the halls of Congress, 1,000 miles to the north.

It's a battle over water, water that needs to flow into parts of this fragile ecosystem. But it also serves as an example of the much wider argument: what constitutes a pork spending project?

Video: Watch Ainsley's special investigation

Buried in the 1,123-page omnibus spending bill is a little-noticed provision, allotting $212 million to build mile-long bridge along this area of the Tamiami Trail.

If the bridge is built, water could be allowed to flow to a part of the Everglades that's been drying up. But the provision would also overturn a federal judge's decision to stop construction and do further environmental testing.

The bridge is just part of a large group of projects meant to help the fragile Everglades, which is damaged after years of development. Supporters say it is the key component, approved by Congress in 1989 to restore water flow to primary head waters of Everglades National Park.

But the Parks Department says for water to flow, current levies need to be unblocked and a major part of the Tamiami Trail, a vital roadway connecting Florida's east and west coast, will completely flood.

JOE JOHNSON, FLORIDA NATIONAL RESOURCES CENTER: The bridge is really the only way to connect the water that doesn't cause long-term harm. And it also promotes the connectivity of the Everglades. A big part of restoring the Everglades is to allow openings to the wildlife to move from one area to another. If you have culverts, they're basically not useful to wildlife.

EARHARDT: But not everyone sees it that way. Bordering the area where the bridge would go is the land of the Miccosukee tribe. They trace their lineage in the Everglades back to the 1700s, finally gaining recognition by the government in 1962. And they are very opposed to the bridge.

DEXTER LEHTMEN, ATTORNEY FOR MICCOSUKEE TRIBE: It's absolutely pork. The judge found that it was a waste of taxpayer dollars. It's not analyzed. It's not shovel-ready. Science has not been applied to it. So how do we justify a project after a judge says it's going to do irreparable harm to the Indians?

EARHARDT: Dexter Lehtmen is the attorney for the tribe, which in November successfully won an injunction to stop construction on the bridge. U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro wrote in her decision, "The Tamiami Trail component could be of no more than construction of an environmental bridge to nowhere, a complete waste of taxpayer dollars."

(on camera) Obviously, it's just gorgeous. We're standing in the middle of all this beauty.

LEHTMEN: Well, the part of the Everglades we're standing in now is the part that will be flooded for more than a year, in order to build a bridge which the Corps of Engineers itself says will not be used or operated to move more water, because other components of the project won't be done for six or seven years.

EARHARDT (voice-over): The tribe says water has been building up in the land north of the trail for years and has swamped tribal land, eliminating tree islands, which are sanctuaries for animals in the swamp. They point to this disturbing video, where deer are seen drowning because of the excess water.

BILLY CYPRESS, MICCOSUKEE TRIBE: It's called the bridge to nowhere.

EARHARDT (on camera): Why?

CYPRESS: Why? Because they have levees blocking the water flow. If they're going to do something to help the Everglades, they need to use that bridge money to knocking all the levees so that they can restore the flow.

ROCK SALT, DIRECTOR OF EVERGLADES RESTORATION: The tribe argues that we don't need a bridge, that all you need to do is clean out the culverts, and everything will be fine. Well, I think technically, that's true. But in order — in order to get the water they're talking about through the culverts, you have to raise the — you have to raise the water level in the canal north of the highway, up to the top of the highway.

EARHARDT (voice-over): Supporters of the plan its deny it's pork, arguing that not doing it would actually cost more.

JOHNSON: No, it's not a pork project. This road, this original part of the road was built in 1928. And if we did nothing in terms of Everglades restoration, the road's going to fail.

And this is one of only two roads that goes from the development areas on the east coast over to the west coast of Florida. You cannot have this road fail.

EARHARDT: But the tribe isn't buying it, and along with thousands of other projects piled into the spending bill, the controversy continues.

CYPRESS: Keep in mind, they always talk about the Indian giver. I think it's not the Indians. I think Congress should take a hard look at themselves.


HANNITY: All right, your tax dollars. We'll let you decide.

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