"Bridge to Nowhere"'s Demise Greatly Exaggerated

11/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Despite Governor Sarah Palin's repeated insistence that she said "Thanks but no thanks to the Bridge to Nowhere," the project is still ongoing in Alaska. The "Bridge to Nowhere", more formally known as the Gravina Access Project, was frequently referenced by the McCain-Palin campaign as evidence of the Governor's reform credentials. However, instead of actually killing the project, Palin merely instructed officials to find a less costly alternative. Transportation Department documents indicate that planning for this alternative is being paid for by earmarked federal funds.

Congress had redirected the $223 million earmark for the bridge in November of 2005, and the people of Nowhere, Alaska (as Ketchikan Gateway Borough residents have sardonically called themselves) eventually realized that the specific bridge option that had originally been chosen was never going to be built. Anxious for some sort of improved access to Gravina Island, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly passed a motion on August 21, 2007 urging Southeast Regional Director Malcolm Menzies to begin a new evaluation of the Gravina Access Project, "focusing on Alternate F-3, Alternates D-1, C3-a or C3-4, or improved ferry service." The original alternative (a transportation project term meaning one of the several possible options/routes for building, including No-Build, that were considered) was not going to happen), denoted F-1 in project documents, was the most expensive (projected in 2004 at $230 million) and was chosen for its superior fulfillment of navigational requirements and land access goals.

One month later, Governor Palin issued a press release that "directed the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to look for the most fiscally responsible alternative for access to the Ketchikan airport and Gravina Island instead of proceeding any further with the proposed $398 million bridge." Rather than killing the project itself, she merely killed the specific bridge that had the projected cost of $398 million. However, every bridge alternative considered by the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities had a projected cost of at least 60% of that of the F-1 alternative and would therefore almost certainly still be considered a waste of money by Tom Coburn and John McCain.

Southeast Alaska Regional Director Malcolm Menzies was interviewed by the Associated Press in January 2008 regarding the progress of the project:

What has been abandoned is a controversial alternative that would have crossed Pennock Island with two high bridge spans. Menzies said there is not enough money to pay for that project, and it's unlikely the state will receive any more congressional earmarks for it.

But Menzies also said the state is reviewing other alternatives, including other bridge projects and improved ferry service.

The locations of the aforementioned alternatives can be viewed in this map (PDF) from the Gravina Access Project website, released in May 2008.

Documents recently released by the Alaska Department of Transportation indicate that the project is proceeding as indicated. The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities Amendment #17 to the 2006-2009 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program was released July 2, 2008 (it is available at the AK DOT&PF website.). This was the first amendment to the plan released after Sarah Palin " announced that the State could not fund the selected bridge alternative" in September of 2007. On page 81 of this document (135 in the PDF), we see that the Gravina Access Construction is still present, with an artist's depiction of a bridge. In addition to funds allocated for continuing the already under-construction Gravina Highway, funds are allocated for "design" and for "right of way" acquirement. $600,000 of the $674,600 allocated for these two purposes for fiscal year 2009 come from previous federal earmarks from 1998, 2003, and 2005 bills.

The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities released a status report showing the project was proceeding as planned on August 5th, less than a month before Governor Palin accepted the offer to become John McCain's running mate. The Gravina Island Highway, called the Road to Nowhere by some, is expected to be completed two weeks after election day. However, that project is separate from the bridge project, project 67698 in Alaska with Federal Project #HP-NCPD-0922. The scope of the project is the same as it was 10 years, to "provide environmental documentation and preliminary engineering for the construction of a bridge between Revillagigedo and Gravina Islands." Under the progress text, the current status of the project is explained as follows:

The preferred alternative F-1 is fully permitted, but not fully funded. The Administration has most recently directed the Department to terminate further work on the preferred alternative and reconsider other alternatives that will accomplish the purpose and need at a lower and more fiscally responsible cost. The Department is working with the Administration and the funding agencies to establish the scope of effort necessary to accomplish this mission.

In other words, the Bridge to Nowhere project is still underway, but it won't be nearly as expensive as the originally planned bridge, so perhaps the Federal Highway Administration might relent and provide the money for it. In July, $133,623.93 was spent on the project.

All requests for comment were directed to Roger Wetherell, the Chief Communications Officer at the Alaska Department of Transportation. Wetherell refused to respond to questions on the grounds that he is an Alaska state employee and cannot talk to "party advocating journalists."