A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

One Bridge, Two Bridge

Once upon a time, there were two Bridges to Nowhere. There was the Bridge to Nowhere, and the Bridge to Nowhere’s brother, the Bridge to Nowhere. Or, if you prefer, there was the Gravina Access Project, which would connect the town of Ketchikan to the island of Gravina for purposes of development and airport access, and the Knik Arm bridge, which would improve access between Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The bridge would connect the port in Anchorage to Port MacKenzie in Mat-Su.

These days, when someone talks about the Bridge to Nowhere, they mean the Gravina Island bridge. It’s become a symbol of government pork, while the Knik Arm bridge has fallen into a bit of obscurity, perhaps because the image of a $223 million bridge to a barely-populated island is too good to pass up. The Mat-Su borough isn’t “nowhere” in the same way as Gravina Island – there were 60,000 residents in Mat-Su in 2000, including 5,500 in Gov. Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla; Gravina has almost no permanent residents but is home to an airport. But in 2005, when Congress initially earmarked money for the bridges, the bridges were seen as a pair. Both received significant earmarks in the same transportation bill. Sen. John McCain called out both bridges in his impassioned speech about pork in the bill, though he showed more disdain for Gravina. Both were mentioned by name in Sen. Tom Coburn’s proposed amendment that would have stripped money from the bridges and redirected it to storm-torn New Orleans. And finally, the earmarks for both were stripped, and the money given to Alaska with no strings attached. (The New York Times headline: “Two ‘Bridges to Nowhere’ Tumble Down in Congress.”)

When Palin says she “told Congress ‘thanks, but no thanks’ on that Bridge to Nowhere,” she means the Gravina Access Project. As we pointed out, it’s not quite true – she accepted money from Congress that wasn’t marked for the bridge and didn’t use it to build the bridge, by which token I also tell FactCheck.org “thanks, but no thanks for the Bridge to Nowhere” every time I get a paycheck. But it’s the Gravina bridge she’s stretching the truth about. So what about the Gravina bridge’s shadowy twin, the Knik Arm bridge? Did Palin stand up to Congress on that one?

Actually, it’s going strong. When Congress stripped the earmarks for the Bridges (plural) to Nowhere and instead gave the money to Alaska for general transportation expenses, Palin opted to nix the Gravina bridge but keep building the one at Knik Arm. As former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles said in a recent conference call with the press, “I would say that she said ‘thanks.’ ”

We take no position on whether either bridge is an example of frivolous spending, or whether one is more frivolous than the other. That’s a judgment call. McCain opposed both, and Palin supported both when she ran for governor. But if Palin is going to use her decision not to build the Gravina bridge as an example of her anti-pork crusading, her decision to go on building the Knik Arm bridge becomes a glaring omission.