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Former Governor Murkowski Suggests Replacing Bridge to Nowhere with Tunnel to Nowhere

Baruch Feigenbaum
June 21, 2012, 12:42pm

The all-time king of transportation earmarks was the SAFETEA-LU bill that passed in 2005. The bill approved by both Republican houses of Congress included more than $20 billion in special projects. While some of these 5,092 high priority projects met legitimate needs, most were tools for getting re-elected. The research title was so earmarked that the amount of money for legitimate research activities was severely constrained. (The predecessor bill, TEA 21 had 1,849 such high priority projects.) These projects were in every section of SAFETEA-LU.

The most egregious project is the “bridge to nowhere” which intends to connect the Alaska mainland to a lightly used airport. Currently service is by ferry. Projects sponsors have shown no evidence that they need a new bridge. The “bridge to nowhere” project has drawn so much scorn that the state of Alaska will have trouble building it. Most Alaskan leaders, realizing that fiscal attitudes have changed in Washington D.C., would be happy with the $4.99 they receive in funds from Washington for every dollar that they pay. This is a better return than any other state in the nation receives. 

But former Governor Frank Murkoswski with his feet firmly planted in yesterday is not one of those leaders. Murkowski recently proposed a more expensive proposition—a tunnel.

From the Anchorage Daily News:

[Murkowski is] suggesting an alternative -- an underwater tunnel.

The technology already is in use in North America, Europe and Japan, he said.

The Ketchikan Shipyard could help build prefabricated tunnel sections that would be lowered into a trench on the floor of Tongass Narrows, Murkowski said. He offered his assistance to encourage evaluating a tunnel's chances, "because I think the community really needs to focus on the viable alternative, and then let the chips fall where they may."

The Ketchikan Daily News reports Murkowski spoke as the Alaska Department of Transportation is nearly done with an environmental review that will determine the most fiscally responsible alternative for access between the islands.

The review does not include the original state preferred alternative that drew national attention. That project included a bridge from Revillagigedo Island to Pennock Island and a second bridge from Pennock to Gravina Island, home to the state-owned airport and acreage where the city could expand. A small ferry now shuttles airline passengers to the island.

Murkowski is correct about one thing—prefabricated underwater tunnels are a cost-effective option compared to other tunnels for needed projects.  And prefabricated tunnels such as the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River should be encouraged where they are legitimately needed. 

However, this area needs a tunnel as much as the U.S. needs to increase its budget deficit. Alaska has used some of the original earmarked funds to pay for projects north of Anchorage. The remaining $68.2 million in federal funds that Alaska intends to use to built this bridge/tunnel would be better returned to the federal government to either pay down the deficit or fund a more deserving transportation project. Compared to this project, building a new expressway though Wyoming would be more deserving.

I predict Alaska officials will scream murder and resist giving back the money. The Alaska congressional delegation did not slip an earmark into the bill at the last second to later give that money back to federal taxpayers. A second option would be to use the rest of the funds to improve additional infrastructure around Anchorage. I do not think Anchorage has the needs of Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., or Houston; but it has needs that $68.2 million would fix.

The worst option would be for Alaska to build this unneeded crossing. If the crossing is built, USDOT should insist on the cheapest option possible. I would recommend a one-lane bridge with no decoration. Inbound and outbound traffic could alternate over the bridge. A signal could indicate when traffic is crossing in the opposite direction. I doubt that the signal will be needed for a bridge that connects 50 residents and a tiny airfield to the rest of the state. 

The transportation world was outraged with the Bridge to Nowhere. While earmarks have been a part of transportation bills since 1982, never had they been used for such completely useless projects. Unfortunately some politicians in our 49th state either do not care or have frozen brains. Regardless, transportation leaders should ensure that this crossing either by bridge, tunnel or zip line does not get built. 


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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