The "Bridge to Nowhere," a pork-barrel project that has attracted a lot of unfavorable attention, may not be going anywhere for a while.
The $223 million span linking the small town of Ketchikan to sparsely populated Gravina Island and a second Alaskan bridge project have been stripped of their funding by congressional negotiators as they race to wrap up legislative business.
That decision reflects a growing unease among Republicans of criticism of runaway government spending in a transportation bill that includes 6,000-plus special projects for House members' districts. But the maneuver is largely cosmetic and may only slow the bridge projects. As part of the deal, Alaska will get to keep the $454 million that Congress set aside for the two bridges, and technically the state can use the transportation funds for any project it chooses -- including the bridges.
Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), one of the negotiators of the Department of Transportation spending bill for the coming year, said constituents approach him regularly to complain about the bridge. Other lawmakers reported similar experiences in their districts, Knollenberg said. Fiscal conservatives were particularly furious, regarding the bridge as proof that the Republican-led Congress had lost its way.
"The bridges did not pass our test of priorities," Knollenberg said. "We felt we could not in good faith approve this project."
The Senate tried unsuccessfully last month to redirect a portion of the Alaska bridge funds to fix a heavily traveled interstate bridge outside New Orleans that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. That effort drew furious words and a resignation threat from veteran Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), former chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
This time, Stevens is steering clear. Lawmakers who have worked with him on the issue in recent days said he accepts that the bridges have placed his fellow Republicans in a political bind. "I'm unhappy we have to make any change," Stevens said. He said of the funding transfer, "it's the best we can hope to work out."
"It's largely symbolic," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who would have preferred to strike all $24 billion in special projects that members stuffed into the highway bill. "The money will still go to Alaska," as opposed to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, or to fund other budget priorities, McCain said.
Congress is trying to wrap up three of the four remaining unresolved 2006 spending bills by the end of the week, including the transportation spending bill. That would leave only the defense appropriations bill to complete when the House and Senate return from a Thanksgiving holiday recess. Most of the outstanding issues facing negotiators are relatively minor. But they reflect a heightened scrutiny as lawmakers attempt to stay within strict budget guidelines.
For instance, a bill covering military construction and veterans benefits was held up yesterday because of a dispute over $45 million of military housing funds for Spangdahlem Air Base in southwestern Germany. Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that wrote the bill, visited the base over the summer and was disturbed by the poor quality of its housing.
But Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), Walsh's counterpart in the Senate, thought $45 million seemed excessive, and insisted that a provision be inserted requiring the money be spent in the most "cost-effective" way.
Democrats are particularly unhappy about the 2006 labor, education and health care bill, which cuts $1.5 billion in funding from this year's level. Targets include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Head Start, rural health outreach programs, and health care training.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that compiled the Senate version of the bill, described the spending allotment for the coming year as blatantly inadequate, and said he was forced to cancel about $1 billion worth of special projects to provide more money for high priorities such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which is expected to run well short of funds this winter.
on transportation.Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was unhappy about the move.