Those rugged Alaskan individualists still love the federal dole

 

Opponents of Alaskan statehood in the 1950s feared a state would continue to be a subsidized ward of the federal government. Supporters argued that once it was a state, Alaska would make its own decisions, attract new business and become less dependent on the federal government.

Statehood may have come to Alaska in 1959, but the 49th state continues to be subsidized by Uncle Sam. Its principal businesses are still located in Seattle and Portland, not Anchorage or Juneau. Alaska Airlines, one of the backbones of Alaska’s transportation system, is headquartered in Seattle. The Alaska Northwest Publishing Co., a major publisher of books on Alaska, is headquartered in Portland.

Now we have Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young’s $223 million "bridge to nowhere" as a prime example of the federal subsidies still sought by the 671,000 souls who rattle around in a state twice the size of Texas.

Young’s bridge is just one of 120 "special projects" for Alaska in the $286 billion transportation bill recently passed by Congress. Alaska’s "special projects" total $1 billion – the third largest appropriation in the nation behind California and Illinois.

Oh, did I mention that Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee? Those "conservative" Alaskans know how to bring home the bacon.

Alaska has been on the federal dole since 1867, when William Seward persuaded Congress to appropriate $7.2 million to buy the territory from the Russians. Called "Seward’s Folly" at the time, Alaska has repaid that sum many times over in natural resources alone. But the sparsely populated state is huge. Just providing basic necessities is expensive, and the infrastructure to support human settlement would not exist without financial help from the federal government.

Which brings us to Don Young’s infamous $223 million bridge. It’s not really a bridge to nowhere. It will span the Tongass Narrows from Revillagigedo Island, where the town of Ketchikan is located, to neighboring Gravina Island. There aren’t many flat spots in mountainous southeast Alaska, but Gravina Island is one of the few. Decapitated by scouring glaciers and further flattened by D-9 Cats, Gravina Island is the home of Ketchikan’s small, but busy, international airport.

The folks in Ketchikan get to and from their airport the way most Southeast Alaskans get around from island to island — by ferry. Buses from hotels drive onto the ferry, cross the narrows in less than seven minutes and are driven to the terminal. Locals simply park in Ketchikan, walk onto the ferry, cross the narrows and walk to the airport terminal.

Young wants to build a bridge so people can drive right to the airport terminal without waiting for a ferry. Sounds easy, right? But this is Alaska. Nothing is simple.

The Tongass Narrows is the main route along the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau. Any bridge built directly adjacent to the airport and high enough to allow shipping to pass underneath will rise hundreds of feet in the air — right next to an airport runway where dark, rainy, wind-swept or fog-shrouded instrument landings are the rule rather than the exception, especially in Alaska's long winter. Such a bridge would be a prescription for a terrible disaster.

So Alaska Department of Transportation officials moved the whole project six miles south of town. It’s well away from the airport approach path, but the roundabout trip by vehicle over the proposed bridge will now take about as much time as the ferry trip.

So why build this $223 million bridge if the ferries are adequate and no time is saved? This is Alaska! Gravina Island is rare, valuable flat land. While ferries may be adequate for airport passengers, only a bridge will create the automobile access necessary to develop the rest of the island as a commercial area.

There isn’t enough capital in Alaska — public or private — to finance what Alaskans want to do in their state. Like many of the people in the American West, they simply demand that Uncle Sam serve as their banker instead.

For Westerners, this is nothing new. From the construction of the transcontinental railroad after the Civil War and the below-cost timber sales on the national forests after World War II to spur housing, to the Bureau of Reclamation dams in the Southwest and the Corps of Engineers power dams in the Northwest, the economic development of the West has been financed by the federal treasury, not Wall Street.

In Alaska, large public investments must precede private investment. This is fervently believed by people who think of themselves as rugged individualists, defenders of free enterprise and opponents of entitlements — for everyone but themselves.

Russell Sadler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Eugene, Oregon.