With transportation bill uncertain, congressman
says vital project still in works
By Liz Ruskin
Anchorage Daily News
WASHINGTON, D.C. Under threat of a veto, Alaska Rep.
Don Young said he may have to temporarily scale back his $375
billion national transportation plan, but that a bridge across
Knik Arm would be part of a smaller bill he may present to
the House this year.
"I think the administration is dead wrong, but I'm also
a realist," Young said.
America's economy depends on increased transportation spending,
Young said Tuesday, and Alaska's depends on the Knik bridge.
The bridge from Anchorage to Point MacKenzie "is the
one thing that's for the future of the rail belt, the future
for the state, the future for Fairbanks, the future of our
resource development," he said in an interview with Alaska
reporters Tuesday. "Without it, we really don't have
Young, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure
Committee, is in charge of renewing the six-year national
transportation bill. Relying on figures from a federal report,
he has insisted to the cheers of the highway building
industry and construction unions that the country must
have a $375 billion bill.
But the White House objected to the cost of his proposal,
which would be a 60 percent increase over the last six-year
bill. The president has pledged to veto the highway bill the
Senate passed last month and that one was $57 billion
less than what Young wants.
Meanwhile, some of Young's fellow House Republicans have
passionately opposed his proposal to pay for the plan by raising
the gasoline tax a user fee, Young calls it.
He said he knows he doesn't have a lot of company.
"I'm doing this primarily as the lone ranger because
I know I'm right," he said.
One way around the impasse, Young said, is to pass a $100
billion bill that would cover just the next two years, rather
than the usual six.
"My desire to have a two-year bill, frankly, is to rewrite
a bill after the election after the president is either
re-elected or defeated and put the user fee in place
so we can do the job that's necessary," he said.
The bill sets the formula for distribution of highway dollars
to the states. It also includes specific freeway, bridge and
mass transit projects pork, critics say that
Congress members requested for their districts.
The bill would include the "member projects" but
guarantee their funding only for two years.
Congress would have to pass another bill to pay for the rest.
The money would come from the highway trust fund, which is
largely funded by the national gas tax.
Washington politicians are thinking too small when it comes
to transportation spending, Young said.
Billions of dollars are wasted because Americans are stuck
in traffic jams and their cars are rattled by rough roads,
he said. The whole economy is "on the verge of imploding"
because we're not improving the transportation system, Young
said, and we're falling behind China.
"The reason we were No. 1 is our transportation system.
That's what won the Cold War against Russia," he said.
"Russia could never put a transportation system in place"
to meet its economic goals.
Young said he is sure he will win the gas tax increase eventually.
"People are going to be so frustrated they're going
to demand that something's done," he said.
"Right now they're still whining but they won't really
rise up on their hind legs and say, 'We want our roads fixed.
We're willing to pay for them.' "
The White House, which has proposed a $256 billion plan,
says reining in the transportation bill is important to curbing
Young is as passionate about improving the national transportation
system as he is about building a Knik Arm bridge.
The projected costs of the bridge range from $400 million
to $1 billion or more. Young said he can get enough federal
money to make the project "attractive," but that
the state would have to contribute money as well.
The state-chartered organization pressing for the bridge
-- the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority -- says the state
needs a land link between the Port of Anchorage and the new
one at Point MacKenzie. The bridge will trim what is now a
two-hour drive between the ports to a two-mile hop, the authority
says on its Web site.
Henry Springer, the director of the authority, said the bridge
would expand the utility of both ports and improve the movement
of freight. The bridge would also help support Fort Richardson's
new Stryker brigade, he said.
Young cited a more common reason: access to undeveloped acreage.
Anchorage is rapidly running out of land for housing and
industrial development, he said.
"The only way you can have land available for the young
people of Alaska is to go across on the Knik crossing so they
can build homes," Young said.
But critics of the bridge say it would waste a lot of money
and lead to unnecessary sprawl.
Mike Mense, an Anchorage architect and a bridge opponent,
said it's not true that Anchorage has a shortage of developable
Rather, the city is low on raw land that "low-budget
developers can exploit for quick profit," he said in
an opinion piece published in the Daily News.
The Anchorage Bowl has plenty of "underdeveloped"
land, he said, and redeveloping it would cost the taxpayers
less than they would spend on the bridge, road maintenance,
and the many public services new neighborhoods require.