By Karl Vick and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 1, 2008
ANCHORAGE, Aug. 31 -- Democrats accused Gov. Sarah Palin (R) on Sunday of misrepresenting her role in scuttling a controversial bridge project to a remote island in southeast Alaska.
On Friday, the day she was introduced as Sen. John McCain's running mate, Palin touted her opposition to a bridge originally championed by Alaska's most prominent officials as an example of her fiscal conservatism and reformist credentials.
"I told Congress, 'Thanks but no thanks on that Bridge to Nowhere,' " Palin told a crowd in Dayton, Ohio.
But prominent Alaska Democrats said Palin supported the bridge while campaigning for governor and reversed course only after vocal opposition from fiscal conservatives in Washington, including McCain.
"She was the only candidate who was saying, 'We're going to build that bridge,' " said former governor Tony Knowles (D), who lost to Palin in the 2006 general election. "She's taking a position now which certainly wasn't what it was when she was campaigning."
The bridge would have connected Ketchikan, a town of about 14,000 people 300 miles south of Juneau, with its airport, which sits across a channel and is difficult to get to by car. At $223 million, the bridge was included in the 2005 federal highway bill by the state's sole congressman, Don Young (R), who was chairman of the House Transportation Committee at the time. Later that year, fiscal conservatives tried to redirect the money to pay for bridge repairs in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
After some parliamentary skirmishes, congressional leaders agreed to kill earmarked funding for the Ketchikan bridge and another bridge near Anchorage, instead giving the state a lump sum of $454 million to spend as it saw fit.
While campaigning in Ketchikan in September 2006, Palin indicated support for the bridge project, assuming there was no better alternative. "This link is a commitment to help Ketchikan expand its access, to help this community prosper," she told the local chamber of commerce, according to an account in the Ketchikan Daily News.
"She campaigned here, she knew what the project entailed, and she was very affirmative, unqualified: 'We've got to get the bridge done,' basically," Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein, who supported Knowles, said Sunday.
McCain's campaign said Palin never fully committed to the project and ultimately made the right call.
"Governor Palin acted like a responsible and effective executive. After taking office and examining the project closely, she consistently opposed funding the 'Bridge to Nowhere' and ultimately canceled the wasteful project," said Maria Comella, Palin's campaign spokeswoman.
In nixing the bridge project last September, Palin issued a news release citing high cost overruns for the project, which grew to at least $398 million.
"She made the final decision to kill a very bad project, so she deserves credit for that. But she didn't do it as an ideological opponent of earmarks. She did it as someone who had to balance the books," said Keith Ashdown, an investigator with Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Palin's decision resulted in no savings for the federal government. The bridge money is being spent on other highway projects in Alaska.
Kane reported from St. Paul, Minn.