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Bridge too far on the Bridge to Nowhere

Robert Farley
By Robert Farley September 23, 2008

SUMMARY: A clear theme of the McCain campaign is to say Obama favors the pork-barrel spending that McCain so strongly opposes. But in this example, linking Obama to the famous Bridge to Nowhere, the McCain campaign loses its footing.

They say the best defense is good offense. Which probably explains the latest tack by John McCain's campaign on the Bridge to Nowhere backlash.

For weeks, the media has castigated Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for her repeated claim "I told the Congress ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ on that Bridge to Nowhere." In our analysis , we noted that while Palin formally put an end to the project, it was nearly dead anyway, and Alaska still kept the money for other transportation projects. We also noted that Palin flip-flopped , having supported the bridge project during her run to become governor.

Recently, the McCain campaign has tried to turn the tables. According to several recent campaign press releases: "Barack Obama has the longest track record of any candidate in this election in support of the 'Bridge To Nowhere.' "

We’re betting if you’re on this Web site, you’re enough of a political junkie to know what the Bridge to Nowhere is. But just in case, it was a plan to build a nearly $400-million Alaska bridge 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.

As Exhibit A to show Obama’s longtime support, the McCain campaign notes that Obama voted in 2005 for the conference report on the Highway Reauthorization Bill, which included $225-milion for the Gravina Island bridge.

The conference report passed 91-4. And yes, McCain was among the four who voted against it. In a floor statement explaining his opposition, McCain specifically referenced the Gravina Island bridge among his many concerns with the bill.

But does Obama’s vote for the bill equal support for the Bidge to Nowhere? Let’s put this in some perspective. The bill included $286.5-billion though 2009 for highway, mass transit, safety and research programs. The Alaska bridge was less than a tenth of 1 percent of the spending in the bill.

"So they’re saying that because Obama was among the 91 senators who voted for the highway funding bill, that makes him a supporter of the bridge? That’s laughable," Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor told PolitiFact.

We agree.

The bill included more than $1.3-billion for transportation projects in Illinois, which also could explain Obama's vote.

"This gets so goofy," said Keith Ashdown, a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense. Ashdown is the guy who saddled the Gravina Island project with the dubious moniker, "Bridge to Nowhere," a catchy name that helped the project become a national poster child for wasteful government spending.

"He (Obama) voted for the bill that would have made the Bridge to Nowhere a reality," Ashdown said. "But I don’t know if that means he supported it. I don’t think that’s true."

But there’s some more to consider.

With the Bridge to Nowhere a national laughingstock, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in October 2005 proposed an amendment that would have redirected $125-million in funding for the Alaska bridge toward reconstruction of a New Orleans bridge damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Obama voted against the amendment, which failed. McCain was not present and didn’t vote.

On Nov. 15, the Chicago Tribune printed a commentary from Obama which, in part, explained his decision.

"Others intent on cutting spending have pointed to Alaska’s ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ as a wasteful project," Obama wrote. "I agree and believe that it represents the first type of project we should cut. But it’s wrong to single out one state’s pork project. If we’re serious about shared responsibility, let’s eliminate all pork projects in all states."

Due to uproar over the so-called Bridge to Nowhere project, a congressional committee directed the $225-million earmarked for the Gravina Island bridge to the Alaska Department of Transportation. So Alaska would keep the money, but it would no longer be tied to the Bridge to Nowhere. Alaska could decide how to spend the money as it saw fit. They could even decide to spend it on the bridge.

By way of timeline, it was a year later — in the fall of 2006 — that Palin, then a candidate for governor of Alaska, assured the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce she was all for the bridge, and told the Anchorage Daily News "the window is now — while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist."

It was a view she changed when she became governor. Early in 2007, she did not include funding for the bridge in her budget. And faced with a project whose pricetag had ballooned to $400-million, the fact that much of the federal money for the project had been spent on other transportation projects, and little prospect that the federal government would throw any more money at the unpopular project, she formally pulled the plug. Palin’s role has been well-reported in the media.

But back to Obama. Yes, he voted in favor of the massive transportation bill that included funds for the Bridge to Nowhere. But we don’t think that translates to support for the project.

Some might argue that the Coburn amendment gave Obama a clear opportunity to kill the Bridge to Nowhere — where it was not lumped in with other projects — but Obama chose not to. But again, does that equate to support for the project? In his commentary, Obama made clear he did not support the project, but didn't think it was right to single out one specific earmark from one state. The original bill inlcuded literally thousands of projects, with a little something for every state. And it passed with a resounding 91 senators in favor.

We think it’s a stretch to claim that Obama supported the Bridge to Nowhere. Certainly not the way Palin once did when she was running for governor of Alaska. Voting for a $236-billion spending bill that included the Alaska bridge is hardly support for it. But because Obama could have voted to kill the project with the Coburn Amendment, we’ll give it a Barely True.

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Bridge too far on the Bridge to Nowhere