The plans for these bridges are not new, and Alaskan Sierra Club members have worked against them for years. In the “Pipeline Days” of the 1970s when the state was flush with oil money, lawmakers like Senator Ted Stevens devised elaborate transportation projects, including the bridges. The Sierra Club’s Knik Group, based in Anchorage, has opposed the Knik Arm Bridge since the 1980s. That bridge would connect Anchorage to a small port and a large area of undeveloped land across the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet. Critics point out that with little development on that side, the necessary connecting roads and other construction would promote sprawl.
Its construction would also destroy part of Government Hill, Anchorage’s oldest neighborhood, where Mary Grisco, right, of the Knik Group lives. Grisco helped to defeat the bridge in the 80s, but notes these projects never seem to go away. She says the fact that support for such projects may revive “still doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do or our concerns have gone away.” Grisco adds that the Knik Arm Bridge, like similar projects, “is a really stupid idea, but you have to keep reminding people how stupid.”
For years, the Juneau Group has opposed unnecessary development on Gravina Island through its work to protect the Gravina Island Roadless Area, and it criticized the Gravina Island Bridge linking Ketchikan to the island, which has a population of 50 people and regular ferry service.
But Young resuscitated support for the bridges this year by earmarking enough federal money for environmental impact reviews and initial construction. The earmarks would require matching funds from Alaska, which means taking money from the repair or upgrade of existing infrastructure. As a result, says Betsy Goll, a Sierra Club staffer in Anchorage, “Alaskans started to speak out against these bridges because they knew their local roads wouldn’t get fixed when they were expecting them to.”
Alongside a growing chorus of opposition from taxpayer groups, transportation interests, and fiscal conservatives was the Sierra Club’s national Challenge to Sprawl Campaign. Campaign director Eric Olson worked with Eric Antebi of the Club’s media team to create a nationwide media buzz around the issue. By making the bridges the centerpiece of the Club’s “Fix It First” campaign, they emphasized that billions of dollars of infrastructure needs across the country were not met because Congress was funding “wasteful, unneeded, and sprawl-inducing projects.” Their message resonated with journalists, resulting in numerous articles and editorials in publications like the New York Times, the Denver Post, and U.S. News and World Report.
Scrutiny on the bridges increased after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated existing infrastructure along the Gulf Coast. In October, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) proposed an amendment eliminating the Alaska bridge funding and diverting some of that money to repair a Louisiana bridge. In response, Senator Stevens announced, “I will put the Senate on notice—and I don’t kid people—if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state, to take money only from our state, I’ll resign from this body.”
At a staff meeting soon after, Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope translated Stevens’ outburst. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Pope said, Stevens’ underlying message was a threat to block funding for other senators’ pet projects if they voted for the amendment. The threat worked. The amendment failed 82-15.
Pope further fanned the flames of public criticism when he explained on his blog that Nancy Murkowski, mother of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and wife of Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski, owns land on Gravina Island, signaling a potential conflict of interest. The Anchorage Daily News cited a Ketchikan Gateway Borough employee as expecting the bridge to spur “residential, recreational, commercial, and industrial development on the island.”
In response, Nancy Murkowski told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that the bridge would reach the opposite end of the island, and thus be too far to have any affect on the property’s value—which she believed was already overvalued. In fact, the bridge would touch down three-fourths of a mile from the property.
In a letter delivered to Senators Murkowski and Stevens, Pope wrote, “Either the bridge is needed because it will bring development to the island, in which case there is a serious conflict of interest on the part of Senator Murkowski in light of her family's land holdings. Or, even with the bridge, the land on Gravina Island will continue to be worthless muskeg, and not a boon to development or property values, in which case your major justification for taxpayer assistance is baseless…you can't have it both ways.”
Although the earmarks for these bridges were removed, the money is still going to Alaska. However, it’s now up to the state to determine which transportation projects should be funded. Grisco notes that the Gravina Island Bridge seems to be losing support, but the Knik Arm Bridge may find enough advocates in the state legislature to survive. But Goll is optimistic now that Alaskans have, she says, “a second chance at working locally to make sure these projects don’t happen.”
Mary Grisco photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
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