Shortly after being introduced as Sen. John McCain's vice presidential running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin sought to bolster her credibility as a crusader against wasteful spending, saying, "I told Congress, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' on that bridge to nowhere."
We ruled that statement only Half True. Yes, we noted, Palin formally nixed plans for a nearly $400-million Alaska bridge project to connect the tiny city of Ketchikan to Gravina, an island with just a few dozen residents and an airport. The project was derisively nicknamed the Bridge to Nowhere by a government watchdog group and became a national symbol of federal pork-barrel spending.
Long before Palin killed the project, Congress washed its hands of the bridge. In the transportation spending bill that included money for the Ketchikan bridge, Congress deleted the wording that would have directed money for the project, though it left the money in place so Alaska officials could decide which transportation projects to spend it on. As a result, Alaska diverted much of the $223-million from the federal government to other projects, leaving the Ketchikan-Gravina bridge project woefully underfunded, and with no prospect of additional federal funding. That was the point at which Palin formally killed the bridge project.
Several of our readers wrote to us saying we were too generous with our ruling, that Palin had flip-flopped on the issue, at one time supporting the bridge before later opposing it.
We think that's a separate matter, and so we'll address it here.
While running for governor in September 2006, Palin assured the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce she was all for the bridge.
"The money that's been appropriated for the project, it should remain available for a link, an access process as we continue to evaluate the scope and just how best to just get this done," Palin said then, according to a story in the Ketchikan Daily News . "This link is a commitment to help Ketchikan expand its access, to help this community prosper."
"I think we're going to make a good team as we progress that bridge project," she told the audience.
And in a written questionnaire for the Anchorage Daily News the following month, October of 2006, Palin was asked directly, "Would you continue state funding for the proposed Knik Arm and Gravina Island bridges?"
Her answer: "Yes. I would like to see Alaska's infrastructure projects built sooner rather than later. The window is now — while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist."
Palin's position began to shift once she became governor, however.
Palin took over as governor in December 2006 and in February 2007 her proposed state budget didn't include state funding for the Ketchikan bridge. A spokesman noted that Palin's proposed capital budget focused on projects that could draw federal money, too. At that point, according to the Ketchikan Daily News , the cost of the bridge had risen $67-million and former Gov. Frank Murkowski had recommended putting $195-million in the state budget for Ketchikan's bridge.
In defending the change of position this week, Palin campaign spokeswoman Maria Comella said Palin "acted like a responsible and effective executive. After taking office and examining the project closely, she consistently opposed funding the 'Bridge to Nowhere' and ultimately canceled the wasteful project."
It's true that on Sept. 21, 2007, Palin officially killed the project.
"Ketchikan desires a better way to reach the airport, but the $398-million bridge is not the answer," Palin said in a prepared statement. "Despite the work of our congressional delegation, we are about $329-million short of full funding for the bridge project, and it's clear that Congress has little interest in spending any more money on a bridge between Ketchikan and Gravina Island."
But she wasn't sounding like someone who opposed the project as wasteful either.
"Much of the public's attitude toward Alaska bridges is based on inaccurate portrayals of the projects here," Palin said. "But we need to focus on what we can do, rather than fight over what has happened."
So the question here is whether Palin flipped positions on the project, or conceded to the political reality that opposition had become too strong against it. Without further support from Congress, Alaska would have had to shoulder most of the cost itself.
Palin's quotes about the project this week seem to suggest she opposed the project.
"I've championed reform to end the abuses of earmarked spending by Congress," Palin said at a joint appearance with McCain in Washington, Pa., on Aug. 30. "And I did tell Congress, thanks but no thanks for that bridge to nowhere. If our state wanted to build a bridge, we were going to build it ourselves."
McCain said Palin has "stopped government from wasting taxpayers' money on things they don't want or need. And when we in Congress decided to build a bridge in Alaska to nowhere for $233-million of yours, she said, we don't want it. If we need it, we'll build our own in Alaska. She's the one that stood up to them."
Nevermind that Alaska didn't give the money back. It spent the money on other transportation projects.
The context of Palin's and McCain's recent statements suggest Palin flagged the so-called Bridge to Nowhere project as wasteful spending. But that's not the tune she was singing when she was running for governor, particularly not when she was standing before the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce asking for their vote. And so, we rate Palin's position a Full Flop.