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Bridge to Nowhere Champion Secures Funding for Railroad to Nowhere

Baruch Feigenbaum
July 11, 2012, 5:00pm

The Bridge to Nowhere earmark in the 2005 surface transportation bill substantially changed Congress' approach to legislation. Prior to the change, congressman were perfectly happy with legislation that increased the federal budget as long as their district received “special projects.” While earmarks were used in all kinds of legislation, the problem was most apparent in transportation bill. And 2005’s SAFETEA-LU with the Bridge to Nowhere and the 5,091 other earmarks caused Republicans from Georgia to Idaho to swear off earmarks. 

When the Republicans won control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, they instituted an earmark ban. This year’s Republican class of presidential candidates tried to one-up each other in denouncing earmarks and most other kinds of federal funding. The “Bridge to Nowhere” earmark proved so controversial that former Governor Murkowski proposed a tunnel instead of the proposed bridge. 

However, politicians in our 49th state are both literally and figuratively cut off from the rest of the country. Representative Don Young, who has been Alaska’s representative to the U.S. House since Richard Nixon held the presidency, managed to get funding for a local railroad from the national transportation bill. Young shares Nixon’s talent of getting what he wants without letting a congressional investigation into his conduct or an earmark ban get in his way. 

From Politico:

Alaska Rep. Don Young brought the world the “Bridge to Nowhere.” Call this the Railroad to Nowhere.

Seven years ago, the veteran Republican created a cash gusher for the touristy Alaska Railroad by giving it a share of Congress’s mass transit bucks. In June, he stared down the Senate to keep the subsidies flowing for another two years.

The price tag: $62 million.

Those millions were part of a package meant to help mass transit lines carry commuters, not send cargo and tourists through the Alaskan tundra. And Young pulled it off at a time where member-specific earmarks are supposed to be a thing of the past — a victim, in fact, of the outrage over Young’s much-maligned Bridge to Nowhere that would have connected an Alaskan town to an island of 50 people.

Calling Young defiant would be an understatement:

“Throughout my career in Congress, I have fought hard to ensure a level playing field between Alaska and its lower-48 counterparts — and the Alaska Railroad is no different," Young said in a statement to POLITICO. "There is no reason why the Alaska Railroad should be treated differently than other American passenger rail systems — and that is exactly why this provision is so important." 

Young is wrong on many levels. First, the Alaska railroad is very different from the urban transit projects that this provision was designed for. While many urban mass transit systems such as the New York City subway provide millions of rides a year (The New York Subway provided 1.5 billion rides last year), this Alaska railroad carries only 412,000 passengers a year. And the Alaska railroad is not a transit system that carries passengers from Eagle River to downtown Anchorage. Its main purpose is to carry freight and tourists from Seward along the Gulf of Alaska to Fairbanks in the middle of the state—a distance of 470 miles. If you believe significant number of passengers commute to work along this route, I have some oceanfront property to sell you in Fairbanks. 

While I dislike federal transportation dollars being spent on local transit projects, if we are going to spend resources on these projects, they should actually transport people from home to work. They should not subsidize economic development by taking tourists from Fairbanks to Denali National Park. And it would be extra nice if members of Congress would follow they laws they wrote.

Here is how Young got the money. From Politico:

In 2005, as Americans ridiculed Young's Bridge to Nowhere earmark, few noticed an expensive provision for the Alaska Railroad in the same bill. He made the railroad eligible for mass transit funding based on its number of track miles rather than its number of passengers. The paragraph was buried in a subsection labeled Technical Amendments, and it's been worth tens of millions of dollars a year.

As Congress drew closer to a new transportation deal this year, it looked like Young and the Alaska Railroad were out of luck. The Senate voted to eliminate Young's earmark — and three-quarters of the state's transit funding — prompting Moody's to downgrade the Alaska Railroad's credit. The House kept silent on the earmark.

But in the final round of talks, Young won a concession from the Senate. They drew up a plan that would give Alaska money for its rail system within the city of Anchorage and for a portion of its tracks across the state.

Sources close to the talks said that the earmark ban gave Young an ironic advantage in the endgame. Because other House members weren't asking for special carve-outs, his proved an easy win.

While the railroad’s subsidy will drop from $36 million to $31 million, that $31 million is crucial for a railroad with a net income of $13.4 million last year. 

Unfortunately the earmark ban while important is not sufficient. Congressional members need to read the bill thoroughly to ensure that creatively titled projects like these do not flip through the cracks. Anyone in the lower 48 states who is vacationing in Alaska should remember to ride the Alaska Railroad and send a thank you note to all the taxpayers who helped pay for his visit.


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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