While a debate rages over how honest Sarah Palin has been in stating her opposition to the infamous Bridge To Nowhere, another massive, widely-criticized transportation project is lingering in Alaska.
The "Road To Nowhere" is a $375 million "mega-project" designed to connect Juneau to the towns of Haines and Skagway via 50 miles of new road along the steep slopes of an avalanche-battered canal, ending at a ferry terminal at the Haines river.
As of 2005, Haines had a population of 2,400, while Skagway had 870 residents.
According to the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, a group promoting "sensible transportation systems in the state," the Road to Nowhere is an irresponsible waste. The project has received more than $100 million in federal and state funding. This includes a $15 million dollar federal earmark and approximately $24 million in federal dollars passed through to the state. But it remains far from completion - hampered by opposition, environmental and safety concerns, and general wariness over its utility.
Palin has been anything but a steady fiscal hawk on the matter. The Governor came into office saying she supported the road, which was started under her predecessor Frank Murkowski. In an October 2006 questionnaire by Anchorage Daily News, she simply wrote "Yes" when asked "Do you support building a road from Juneau to Skagway?"
But even Palin's own transition team recognized, in its report, that the Bridge and Road to Nowhere were "seen as a severe drain on resources that would otherwise be assigned to heavily used commercial and passenger routes." And yet, Palin has not definitely ruled out the construction of the road. She canceled plans for an 11-mile gravel road that could have been part of the Juneau Road project. And after conservation and public interest groups filed a lawsuit in August 2006 to halt the roads construction, Palin's office decided not to move forward while the litigation was pending.
"It doesn't make sense to piecemeal the project when it's in litigation and the outcome could change the whole scope of the project," said the governor's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, at the time. "She feels the most fiscally conservative thing to do is wait."
However, Palin appears to continue to support the project. In October 2007, the Alaska Daily News wrote that the governor "retains an administrative commitment for a Road to Nowhere." Half a year later the paper published an editorial that read:
"[In canceling the 11-mile strip Palin] wasn't aiming to kill this dubious project, which doesn't even connect Juneau to the rest of Alaska's road system. (It is essentially a 50-mile driveway to a new ferry terminal on Lynn Canal). Her administration has been moving forward with the project, estimated to cost $374 million. That is almost as much as the nationally infamous $398 million Ketchikan bridge to Gravina Island, which Palin did kill."
(Another thing that ties the Bridge to Nowhere with its Road counterpart: the first $15 million for the Juneau road was included in the same bloated transportation bill that had Sen. Ted Steven's most notorious pork project.)
In fairness, Palin could, ultimately, come out against the Road to Nowhere. Certainly, as the running mate on an anti-wasteful spending Republic ticket, it would seem like the most electorally expedient move to make. But until then, the project could prove politically problematic for both her and Sen. John McCain. Opponents say it is wrongheaded for safety and budgetary reasons. The highway runs through several major avalanche zones, which would make the road all but inoperable during the winter. There are environmental concerns that come with the construction. Already, a ferry system allows for passage to most of the sparsely populated areas.
"The plan makes no sense. Instead, Alaska's politicians should do something they don't do very often: they should put the money for the road in the bank," wrote Heather Lende, a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, in a fierce New York Times op-ed. "The interest alone could go toward operating and maintaining the current Lynn Canal ferry system. A few rules would probably need to change, but I'm confident Alaska's politicians have enough clout when it comes to dealing with federal transportation money to bring this about."
These critiques aside, there are those in Alaska pining for the completion of the road, viewing it as an effective way of connecting the state's capital to surrounding communities. Where Palin stands currently remains undetermined. Certainly, her selection as McCain's vice president puts her in a bit of a bind. There is already a bounty of evidence that clouds her claim to be consistently against the Bridge to Nowhere. An opposition to the Road to Nowhere at this point may also seem driven by political expediency.
"She hasn't been in office that long and she hasn't made a lot of tough decisions," said Lois Epstein, director of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project. "On the Juneau road project she has said different things. During he campaign she said she was supportive and we have presented her info since the election about what a bad idea it is and how big a black hole and fiscally irresponsible it is for the state. And why the money should be spent elsewhere. We have been really pushing her to cancel the road. But she hasn't made a decision on it. It is up in the air."