A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Bridge to Nowhere


Q: What's the full story on the Bridge to Nowhere?

A: Palin supported it even after McCain denounced it, then blamed "inaccurate portrayals" when she canceled it for lack of money. Obama and Biden voted for the big transportation bill that contained it. McCain's vote was one of four against. Our time line gives full details.

FULL QUESTION

What is the truth about the Bridge to Nowhere? Did Palin support it? Did she keep the funds for the bridge and use them elsewhere in Alaska after she changed her position? Or was the money returned to the government? If it was returned, did Congress offer to send the funds to Katrina victims and Obama and Biden both voted against it?

FULL ANSWER

We've written about the Gravina Access Project, also known as the Bridge to Nowhere, several times – first back in November when John McCain used it as an example of pork-barrel spending, again this month when we looked at Sarah Palin's convention speech, and finally in a post on the FactCheck Wire. But there are still misunderstandings and distortions floating around, and we're still getting questions about them.

For instance, on Sept. 14 McCain campaign spokeswoman Carly Fiorina erroneously told ABC News, "The facts are that Sarah Palin rejected the money for the bridge to nowhere." And Palin herself is still claiming credit for defeating the bridge, most recently at a campaign rally in Nevada. As NBC's Matthew Berger reports, Palin reiterated a line that's becoming a familiar refrain:

NBC News, Sept. 13: Palin has come under fire in recent days for misleadingly saying she told Congress “thanks but no thanks,” refusing an earmark for a bridge to a sparsely inhabited island in her home state. Independent groups and media fact-checkers have said Palin advocated for the federal earmark before opposing it, only ended after Congress had essentially killed it, and kept the $223 million for the appropriation after the project was killed.

Palin had cut the refrain from her speech during her three-day visit to Alaska. But she came back to it today, citing it as an example of earmark reform she and McCain would push for in the White House.

“I told Congress thanks but no thanks to that Bridge to Nowhere – that if our state wanted to build that bridge, we would build it ourselves," she said.

Meanwhile, we're also getting questions about Obama's and Biden's positions on the Bridge to Nowhere – did they vote in favor of the original earmarked legislation? In an attempt to forestall further repetition of misinformation, we present the Bridge to Nowhere time line:

July 2005: Congress votes on a bill authorizing funding for highways. The bill includes funds earmarked for the Gravina bridge and the less-famous Knik Arm bridge. Both bridges go to low-population areas and are labeled "bridges to nowhere." Sen. McCain makes an impassioned speech on the floor decrying both bridges and dozens of other projects he considers unnecessary. About the Gravina bridge, he says:

McCain (July 29, 2005): We figure it is about $80 million. It could be a lot more than that. Guess how many people live on the Gravina Island? Fifty; five-zero. I don’t know what that works out to per capita, but it is about a million-something per person at least.

Biden and Obama vote for the $286.4 billion highway bill, with the Gravina bridge and the other projects included. McCain and only three others vote against it. The highway bill passes 91 – 4 with five not voting.

October 2005: Sen. Tom Coburn proposes an amendment to a bill making appropriations for transportation. The amendment would strip the earmarked funds from the Gravina and Knik Arm bridges and commit them to the rebuilding of the Twin Spans bridge in Louisiana, which was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Obama and Biden vote against the amendment. McCain is not present. The amendment fails 82 – 15 with three not voting.

Instead, the revised appropriations bill strips the earmarks from the bridges and allots that money to the Alaska Department of Transportation with no strings attached. The money may, but need not, be used to build the bridges. It can also be used for other transportation-related projects.

THOMAS summary, H.R. 3058: (Sec. 186) Makes available to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities for eligible surface transportation projects, subject to specified conditions, any amounts otherwise available under SAFETEA-LU for the Gravina Island bridge and the Knik Arm bridge.

McCain is not present to vote on the revised bill. Obama and Biden both vote in favor of it, and the bill passes 93 – 1 with six not voting.

2005 and 2006: The Bridge to Nowhere becomes a symbol for government pork, helped in no small part by McCain's anti-earmark enthusiasm. McCain mentions the bridge in interviews and speeches. In November 2006, in a speech to a conservative political action committee, he blames midterm election losses on earmarks including the bridge: ''Those and other earmarks passed by a Republican Congress included $50 million for an indoor rain forest, $500,000 for a teapot museum; $350,000 for an Inner Harmony Foundation and Wellness Center; and of course, as you all know, $223 million for a bridge to nowhere. I didn't see these projects in the fine print of the Contract with America, and neither did the voters.''

September 2006: Palin, campaigning for governor, tells the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce that she supports the bridge and would use the money from Congress for the Gravina Access Project. The bridge would connect Ketchikan to Gravina Island, replacing a ferry and improving access to the Ketchikan airport.

Palin, Sept. 2006: The money that’s been appropriated for the project, it should remain available for a link, an access process as we continue to evaluate the scope and just how best to just get this done. This link is a commitment to help Ketchikan expand its access, to help this community prosper.

Palin reiterates her support to other groups and news sources during her campaign. For instance, an Anchorage Daily News poll asks candidates whether they would continue state funding for the bridge. Palin answers in Oct. 2006: "Yes. I would like to see Alaska's infrastructure projects built sooner rather than later. The window is now – while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist."

August 2007: McCain says money wasted on the Gravina Access Project could have been used to prevent the Minnesota bridge collapse. "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 said. "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."

September 2007: Palin announces that Alaska will not be building the Gravina bridge, in part because not enough money has been forthcoming from Congress.

Palin (Sept. 2007): Despite the work of our congressional delegation, we are about $329 million short of full funding for the bridge project, and it's clear that Congress has little interest in spending any more money on a bridge between Ketchikan and Gravina Island. Much of the public's attitude toward Alaska bridges is based on inaccurate portrayals of the projects here. But we need to focus on what we can do, rather than fight over what has happened.

The money from Congress is diverted to other transportation projects. Construction on the Knik Arm bridge continues.

2007 and 2008: McCain continues to invoke the bridge on the stump, in debates and in campaign advertisements. For instance, CQ Weekly quotes him at a campaign rally in South Carolina in Jan. 2008: "Now, which would you rather do? Have the bridge to nowhere in Alaska, a $233 million bridge to an island with 50 people on it, or a $1,000 tax credit for every child in America?" We fact-check a campaign ad in which McCain exaggerates his contributions to defeating pork projects including the bridge.

The digested version of the time line:

  • Palin expressed support for the bridge while running for office.
  • Congress removed earmarks for both bridges long before Palin was elected.
  • While campaigning, Palin still made statements supporting the Gravina bridge, which had no earmarks at that time.
  • Palin chose not to use the money for the Gravina bridge but kept it for other projects, including the Knik Arm bridge.
  • Biden and Obama voted for the authorization bill, which included the earmarks, and the final appropriations bill, which didn't. McCain voted against the authorization but was not present for the vote on the appropriations bill.
  • Biden and Obama voted against redirecting the money intended for Alaska to Louisiana. McCain did not vote.

As we said above, Palin is still using the discredited "thanks, but no thanks" line, which implies that Congress gave Alaska money for the bridge and that Palin rejected it. But in a September interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson, she said that she had supported the bridge, that the money from Congress was given to Alaska for general transportation expenses and not for the bridge particularly, and that the state kept that money.

Gibson: But you were for it before you were against it. You were solidly for it for quite some period of time…

Palin: I was …

Gibson: … until Congress pulled the plug.

Palin: I was for infrastructure being built in the state. And it's not inappropriate for a mayor or for a governor to request and to work with their Congress and their congressmen, their congresswomen, to plug into the federal budget along with every other state a share of the federal budget for infrastructure.

Gibson: Right.

Palin: What I supported was the link between a community and its airport. And we have found that link now.

Gibson: But you didn't say no to Congress, we'll build it ourselves until after they pulled the plug. Correct?

Palin: No, because Congress still allowed those dollars to come into Alaska. They did.

Gibson: Well, but …

Palin: Transportation fund dollars still came into Alaska. It was our choice, Charlie, whether we were going to spend it on a bridge or not.

Palin finished with the old refrain: "And I said, thanks, but no thanks. We're not going to spend it on the bridge."

–Jess Henig

Sources

United States House of Representatives and United States Senate. H.R. 3: Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users. 109th Congress, 1st session. 29 July 2005.

United States House of Representatives and United States Senate. H.R. 3058: Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, the District of Columbia, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act, 2006. 109th Congress, 1st session. 20 Oct. 2005.

Coburn, Tom. SA 2165 to H.R. 3058. 109th Congress, 1st session. 20 Oct. 2005.

Bowlen, Scott. "'Why I should be governor': Halcro, Palin, and Knowles make their pitches." Ketchikan Daily News. 21 Sep. 2006.

State of Alaska, Office of the Governor. "Gravina Access Project Redirected." 21 Sep. 2007.

ABC News. "Excerpts: Charlie Gibson Interviews GOP Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin." 12 Sep. 2008.

Nather, David. "Party's Mantle No Smooth Fit for McCain." CQ Weekly. 11 Feb. 2008.

ABC News. "The Iowa Debates: Republican Candidates." 5 Aug. 2007.

Nagourney, Adam. "McCain Tells Conservatives G.O.P.'s Defeat Was Payback for Losing 'Our Principles.'" The New York Times. 17 Nov. 2006.