By the time she held up a T-shirt proclaiming her support for the bridge during her 2006 campaign for governor, it already had been derided across the Lower 48 as a monument to waste — including by Palin’s current running mate, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Palin was campaigning for the votes of Alaskans who wanted the bridge and who felt aggrieved by all the criticism it had attracted. The shirt’s message said she was one of them, not one of those critics who didn’t even know the local ZIP code. This was tiny Ketchikan, the “nowhere” to be reached by the bridge — or as the T-shirt defiantly proclaimed, this was “NOWHERE ALASKA 99901.”
Just in case there was any doubt about her position, Palin — who grew up in Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley — used some local slang, declaring, “OK, you’ve got valley trash standing here in the middle of nowhere. I think we’re going to make a good team as we progress that bridge project.”
In fact, Palin supported two Alaska bridges: the planned Gravina Island Bridge and its even costlier sister, the Knik Arm Bridge. The congressional fight over them had come during a time of indictments and guilty pleas for lobbyists and lawmakers. The parade of convictions left the clear impression that corruption in Washington was spiraling out of control and that pork barrel spending was at the heart of it.
The bridges even triggered an acrimonious debate on the Senate floor in November 2005, four months after Congress had approved a $454 million down payment for them. The donnybrook was prompted by Hurricane Katrina, which had destroyed one of New Orleans’ most critical bridges. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) tried but failed to push through an amendment to divert Alaska’s bridge money to help rebuild the New Orleans bridge.
Alaska’s two bridges to nowhere were notorious enough before Katrina. But the hurricane’s devastation put them in even starker relief: How could the U.S. government find almost a half-billion dollars for two monumental bridges in a sparsely developed corner of Alaska when it could afford only $42.2 million to shore up the levees of New Orleans the year before the storm hit?
Running for governor
Back when Palin was running for governor, she seemed eager to get the federal money while two members of the state’s Republican delegation, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young,, could still use their insider muscle to bring home Alaska’s bacon.
In the weeks leading up to the election, the Alaska Times asked Palin whether, if elected, she would support continued state funding for the bridges.
“Yes, I would like to see Alaska’s infrastructure projects built sooner rather than later,” she replied. “The window is now — while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist.”
During a televised debate, she was asked if she would cancel a contract to build an access road on Gravina Island intended as a connector to the bridge.
“I’m not going to stand in the way of progress,” she replied.
During the debate, her opponent, independent Andrew Halcro, shot back, “I’m not in favor of standing in the way of progress either, but this isn’t progress. This is a road to a bridge that will never be built.”
Palin’s stance when she was running for governor appears at odds with her current posture as the earmark reformer who struck down the country’s most infamous boondoggle. When McCain introduced her to the nation in Dayton, Ohio, days before the Republican National Convention, Palin said, “I have championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress. In fact, I told Congress, ‘Thanks, but no thanks&rsqu; on that bridge to nowhere. If our state wanted a bridge, I said we’d build it ourselves.”
The McCain campaign says that when it really counted, once Palin was in the statehouse, she pulled the trigger and killed the project.
But her actions then may have been more of a bow to post-Katrina political realities and state budgetary needs. In a Sept. 21, 2007, statement, Palin announced that the state would not proceed with the bridge — at least not on the grand scale envisioned. But the money would not go to New Orleans. Nor would it go back to the federal treasury. Alaska would keep the $454 million.
In July 2005, when Young and Stevens tucked the bridge money into a five-year, $286 billion highway bill, McCain blasted the maneuver: “I want no part of this. This legislation is not — I emphasize not — my way of legislating.”
That outsiders might get the wrong idea about the bridges is understandable.
The $400 million Gravina Island Bridge would connect a coastal island of 7,000 to an undeveloped island of 50. It would have been longer and higher than the Bosphorus Bridge, which connects the land masses of Europe and Asia.
The Knik Arm Bridge, bearing a price tag of up to $2 billion, would cross a narrow portion of the Cook Inlet, substantially cutting the commute between the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, which includes Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, and Anchorage, where she does most of her work as governor. The bridge still has a green light from Palin.
While money for both bridges came out of the same bill, the Gravina Island Bridge became infamous as the bridge to nowhere because it would connect the small island of Revillagigedo — including its main town, Ketchikan — to the almost uninhabited island of Gravina.
Ketchikan, a popular destination for salmon fishermen, lies at the base of a steep, spruce-lined hillside along the Tongass Narrows.
Because the sharp slope prevents even a small airport from being built there, one was built in 1973 just across the narrows on Gravina. Ever since then, people have used a 15-minute ferry ride to shuttle between the town and the airport.
In 2005, a five-year highway bill, the mother of all pork barrel bills, was rumbling through Congress. Stevens and Young saw their chance to snatch $454 million for the bridges. At the time, they were positioned to deliver the money: Stevens was the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Young headed the House committee that drafted the bill, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
In late July 2005, a House-Senate conference committee reached a compromise version of the five-year highway bill.
Scattered throughout the 835-page agreement were five separate earmarks totaling $231 million for the Knik Arm Bridge and three earmarks totaling $223 million for the Gravina Island Bridge.
Congress quickly approved the gravy boat and sent it to President Bush for his signature. But it didn’t travel up Pennsylvania Avenue without a broadside from McCain.
Ticking off a long list of projects, including the bridge to nowhere, McCain said, “If you had asked me years ago, I would have said that the combination of war, record deficits and the largest public debt in the country’s history would constitute a sufficient ‘perfect storm’ to break Congress out of the spending addiction it is so famous for. I would have been wrong.”
Bush signed the legislation into law on Aug. 10, 2005 — less than three weeks before the real perfect storm, Katrina, broke through the Crescent City’s rain-soaked levees. A year earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers had asked for $105 million to shore up the city’s levees, but Congress approved only $42.2 million.
Outraged, Coburn seized on the fiscal year 2006 highway funding bill, which was separate from the five-year road bill and still under consideation in the Senate, and wrote an amendment to redirect to New Orleans $75 million of the money approved for the Alaska bridges.
Stevens was incensed by the Coburn amendment. On the Senate floor, he made the ultimate gesture of defiance toward the amendment: He threatened to resign if his colleagues approved it. They didn’t.
In August 2006, when Palin was running for governor, she told a local paper, “We need to come to the defense of southeast Alaska when proposals are on the table like the bridge and not allow the spinmeisters to turn this project or any other into something that’s so negative.”
But 10 months after being sworn in as governor, Palin announced that the Gravina Island Bridge would not go forward as planned.
“Ketchikan desires a better way to reach the airport, but the $398 million bridge is not the answer,” she wrote, adding that much of the public’s attitude toward the bridges “is based on inaccurate portrayals of the projects here.”
Eleven months later, Palin struck a very different note as she stood next to McCain in Dayton and for the first time publicly denounced the Gravina Island Bridge as the “bridge to nowhere” and took pride in killing it.
“I’ve stood up to the old politics as usual,” she crowed.
Marcus Stern is a reporter for ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. ProPublica reporter Paul Kiel and Director of Research Lisa Schwartz contributed to this story.