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Young agrees House bill may need trimming

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 much hope."

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 congressional spending.

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 land.

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.