Friday, September 05, 2008

The Gravina Island Bridge

You've heard of this project. Really. But it's more popularly known as "the bridge to nowhere".

I've heard so much about this I finally decided to look it up to see what all the fuss was about. The most recent inspiration was a conversation I had recently about how Senator John McCain's running mate Sarah Palin, currently Governor of Alaska, had been "for it before she was against it", as if it's realistic to expect executives of any govt level to refuse money for a project like this.

It turns out that "nowhere" is the airport for Ketchikan, Alaska (pop 8000), which is located on Gravina Island (pop 50).

It's funny how the airport never gets mentioned. The Salon article linked above notes that it has "fewer than 10 commercial flights a day". Sounds pretty lame until you consider that Ketchikan has only 8000 residents. How many other towns of comparable size have *any* commercial service, much less 10 a day? Yes, air transportation is more important in Alaska than in most of the rest of the country.

A resident of Gravina Island notes that there is a ferry and that she can get from home to the local hospital in 5 minutes. OK. But it's still a ferry, limited in size and speed, and my guess is that anyone who lives on a place like Gravina Island didn't go there so they could have lots of neighbors. That is, the residents probably prefer the isolation and thus would oppose the bridge even if it were significantly cheaper.

Would Gravina Island ever be developed to the extent that this would make sense as an investment in infrastructure? That's hard to believe. Suppose the population of the island rose to 1000 people, and they paid $4000 per capita in federal taxes (just to have a number, probably right order of magnitude). If every time of those federal taxes went to paying off a $223M bridge to an island with no paved roads.... This is by no means an adequate evaluation, but my guess is that we'll get a lot more bang for the buck elsewhere.

To hear the overheated rhetoric, you might be thinking that this is the worst example of pork ever. In fact it's probably because it was in the budget at the time of Hurricane Katrina, and people were looking for funds that could be diverted to Katrina relief. I don't keep track of these things, but a far better candidate might be the Army Corps of Engineers' Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway that connects the Tennessee River with the Gulf of Mexico via the Tombigbee River. Many more are discussed a WaPo article here.

The article notes that the Corps of Engineers had already spent more in Louisiana in than in any other state, with spectacularly unsuccessful results - "The Corps has eluded the public's outrage -- even though a useless Corps shipping canal intensified Katrina's surge, even though poorly designed Corps floodwalls collapsed just a few feet from an unnecessary $750 million Corps navigation project , even though the Corps had promoted development in dangerously low-lying New Orleans floodplains and had helped destroy the vast marshes that once provided the city's natural flood protection."

That article goes on to note that "Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) are pushing a Corps reform bill that would require independent reviews of large projects, but they aren't getting much traction."

We will continue to have pork as long as the federal govt is empowered to do so. Sheesh, if there are "penumbras and emanations" from the Constitution that guarantee a right to choose to kill fetuses (and even live births, if you vote like Barack Obama), isn't there one to protect us from nonsense like this?

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