Palin said yes to a road to nowhere

Times Staff Writer

The 3.2-mile-long partially paved “road to nowhere” meanders from a small international airport on Gravina Island, home to 50 people, ending in a cul-de-sac close to a beach.

Crews are working to finish it. But no one knows when anyone will need to drive it.

That’s because the $26-million road was designed to connect to the $398-million Gravina Island Bridge, more infamously known as the “bridge to nowhere.” Alaskan officials thought federal money would pay for the bridge, but Gov. Sarah Palin killed the project after it was ridiculed and Congress rescinded the money. Plans for the road moved forward anyway.


Some residents of Ketchikan -- a city of 8,000 on a neighboring island where the bridge was to end -- see the road as a symbol of wasteful spending that Palin could have curtailed. Some of them even accuse her of deception.

“Surely we won’t have to commute on the highway if there won’t be a bridge,” said Jill Jacob, who has been writing and calling the governor’s office for the last two years to protest the road. “It’s a dead-end highway, a dead-end road.”

Since Palin was named the Republican vice presidential nominee two weeks ago, she has been boasting that she told Congress that Alaska didn’t want the hundreds of millions that had been earmarked for the bridge.

But in 2006, Palin stood before residents in this region during her gubernatorial campaign and expressed support for the bridge. It became apparent after she was elected that the state’s portion would be too costly, and Palin ordered transportation officials to abandon the project.

She held on to the $223 million in federally earmarked funds for other uses, such as the Gravina road, approved by her predecessor.

“Here’s my question,” said Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein. “If Sarah Palin is not being truthful on an issue like the Gravina bridge project, what else is she not being truthful about?”

Alaska transportation officials say construction of the road began in June 2007 because the state was still hoping to build a bridge, and “you need that highway access,” said Roger Wetherell, a department spokesman.

But Weinstein, who backed the bridge project, said that Palin should have redirected the money. “If the bridge was canceled, give the money back, or get the earmark removed, or redesign the road so it’s better for development,” he said. “Especially if you’re opposed to earmarks, and now you’re telling the world you’re opposed to earmarks.”

His frustration came to a head after he heard Republican presidential nominee John McCain and Palin tout her reputation as a reformer focused on saving taxpayer money. He didn’t feel much better when a campaign ad called them “the original mavericks,” and said: “She stopped the ‘bridge to nowhere.’ ”

Weinstein need only glance across the salmon-rich waters separating his city from Gravina Island to see what he believes are millions of dollars being spent unnecessarily. Why, he asks, didn’t she stop that?

Geographic limitations

Ketchikan is on Revillagigedo Island, about 35 miles wide and 55 miles long, a stretch of rugged hills, mountains and spruce. Residents talk of reaching into the clear water and grabbing wriggling salmon with their bare hands. Locals drink rainwater, rarely use umbrellas and hide their garbage from black bears. It is a place where many residents own boats, and the 600-student high school mascot is the king salmon.

It started as a fishing enclave of Alaska Natives, then white settlers built a thriving logging industry. But the city’s last major pulp mill shut down in 1997, and nearly 500 jobs were lost.

“Ten percent of our economy disappeared overnight,” Weinstein said. “That’s why projects like the Gravina access project became all the more important.”

Tourism is now Ketchikan’s main source of income, with 1 million visitors annually. Between May and September, cruise ships the size of stadiums -- often several at a time -- stop daily, unleashing passengers to admire the abundance of totem poles and stop at the dozens of stores selling necklaces and earrings made of gold nuggets and violet-blue tanzanite.

Todd Phillips and his wife, who own a shop on Main Street, moved here from Denver 11 years ago because they liked the region’s tranquillity and entrepreneurial potential. But the city needs to grow, he said, adding that Palin was right on the bridge issue “in the beginning, and she should have followed through with it.”

Now, Phillips said, “we feel like we just don’t count. We’re just a forgotten dot.”

Ketchikan, with its vast stretches of protected wetlands and forests, has little room to grow. About a quarter-mile across the Tongass Narrows waters sits the mostly flat and vacant Gravina Island, about 21 miles long and 10 miles wide, and ripe for commercial and residential development. A 10-minute ferry boat ride takes passengers and their vehicles from one island to the other.

There are no freeways to the mainland for island communities in this region, so people must travel by water or air, which makes the airport on Gravina Island an essential transportation hub for people throughout southeastern-most Alaska.

“To facilitate economic growth [on Gravina], we have to be able to actually get there,” said Thomas Williams, planning director for the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. “Until there is an actual road to transport goods and materials, growth is not possible.”

The bridge was championed by Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, both Republicans, who pushed the project through Congress in 2005 using earmarks -- the controversial practice used by lawmakers to slip targeted spending into bills without public scrutiny. But that earmark quickly became the target of widespread public criticism and was labeled the “bridge to nowhere.” Members of Congress eventually stripped the funds that had been designated for the bridge from a larger spending bill, but allowed Alaska to keep $223 million for other needs.

After that decision, according to a front-page article in the Ketchikan Daily News, Palin said during a Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce meeting: “The money that’s been appropriated for the project, it should remain available for a link . . . to help this community prosper.”

‘A creeping suspicion’

Mike Elerding ran Palin’s campaign for governor in Ketchikan, and she won the vote here. But when Palin took office, he said, locals began to get a “creeping suspicion that maybe she didn’t mean all that she said.”

In September 2007, Palin canceled the bridge project, blaming a funding shortage and lack of congressional support: “Ketchikan desires a better way to reach the airport, but a $398-million bridge is not the answer,” she said in a statement.

“We’re feeling a little bit caught in the middle,” Elerding said recently. “We’re proud she’s getting national recognition, but we’re also feeling betrayed.”

Susan Walsh, a nurse who lives on Gravina Island, remembers attending that Chamber of Commerce meeting. When Palin withdrew her support for the bridge, Walsh figured the road project would have died with it. “It was just stupid,” she said.

Jacob, the woman who has been protesting the road for two years with a letter-writing campaign on behalf of the Tongass Conservation Society in Ketchikan, says: “We begged her to stop.”

An April 2007 letter to Palin read: “I am writing to encourage you to do away with the Gravina Access Highway. At about $8 million per mile of public money, this is a fiscal mistake.”

State officials said alternatives to the $398-million bridge could include improved ferry service or less costly bridges that would link to the Gravina road. “Gov. Palin understood that a more cost-efficient, sensible solution could still be implemented” in place of the original bridge plan, said Maria Comella, a spokeswoman for Palin’s campaign.

On a clear day recently, Mayor Weinstein flew over Gravina Island, looking down on the nearly completed road. “When Sarah Palin goes on national television and says: ‘I told Congress, “Thanks but no thanks,” ’ it’s not true,” he said. “The implication is we didn’t take the money. But we did.”

The mayor said he was considering posting a sign on the road for the rest of the world to see. He said it would read: “Built Under Gov. Sarah Palin, Paid for With Federal Earmarks.”




The road: a timeline

Nov. 16, 2005: After mounting pressure over pork-barrel projects, Congress eliminates the earmark stipulating that $223 million destined for Alaska be spent building a bridge connecting Ketchikan to its airport on Gravina, a neighboring island that has 50 residents. Congress allows Alaska to keep the money and leaves it to the state to decide how to spend it.

Sept. 21, 2006: While running for governor, Palin tells Ketchikan residents, according to the Ketchikan Daily News: “The money that’s been appropriated for the project, it should remain available for a link . . . to help Ketchikan expand its access to help this community prosper.”

Oct. 2, 2006: Palin is quoted in the Ketchikan Daily News: “We need to come to the defense of southeast Alaska when proposals are on the table like the bridge and not allow the spin-meisters to turn this project or any other into something that’s so negative.”

Nov. 7, 2006: Palin is elected governor.

June 2007: Alaska diverts much of the $223 million to other projects. Construction on a 3.2-mile “road to nowhere” begins. Alaska officials say they went forward with the $26-million Gravina highway, designed to connect to the bridge, because if they hadn’t, they would have had to return the money to the federal government.

Sept. 21, 2007: Palin cancels the bridge project, which would have cost the state additional millions on top of the federal funds. “Ketchikan desires a better way to reach the airport, but the $398-million bridge is not the answer,” she says in a news release.

Aug. 29, 2008: McCain announces Palin is his running mate.

Sept. 3, 2008: In a speech at the Republican National Convention, Palin portrays herself as a reformer who had cut waste in government, saying, “I told Congress, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ on that bridge to nowhere.”


-- Kate Linthicum