No Bridge to Nowhere

Originally Published in the Anchorage Daily News January 10 2007

Don’t Stay This Course!

Governor-Elect Palin has an opportunity to do great things for Alaska and her own political future – in one simple move. She should give back the Bridges to Nowhere monies.

I was in Washington, DC, just after the election. I noticed that everything, from the Iraq war to potholes in northern Virginia, gets blamed on our bridges to nowhere. It is truly amazing how many ways the press in Washington finds to deliver snide references to Alaska and its congressional delegation. At the same time, the Governor-Elect’s party is getting hammered about pork and ethics and the election day results reflected that. On the other hand, Ms Palin was one of the few happy stories for the Republicans. She’s a fresh face and she won big on a night when Republicans were losing all over the country. Now, she has an opportunity to come forward with a fresh idea that perfectly resonates with the will of the majority in the country today.

Although the public relations impacts are reason enough for this gesture, there are many other potential benefits.

She partly made her name exposing the misuse of public funds. Those increased salaries at KABATA cannot have pleased her. Shutting down that operation gets rid of one headache and frees up funds and personnel for the problems she really wants to solve. I hope she also knows that the Knik Arm Crossing is not a good deal for Wasilla and the Mat-Su. I hope she’s looked at the map. If built, both rail and highway traffic will eventually completely bypass Wasilla. She knows that if it gets built in the near future, it will saddle both the Mat-Su and Anchorage with huge new and growing infrastructure costs.

Some have said that you just can’t give back federal monies. Some also said you can’t elect a young relatively inexperienced woman to the governorship of Alaska. So far, Sarah Palin has been all can-do in the face of a chorus of can’ts. I hope she keeps it up.

We don’t want our next Governor to get crosswise with our Congressional delegation. She needs to get them on board. Senator Murkowski, I think, would love to be rid of the personally painful conflict between her Government Hill roots and her devotion to progress for Alaska. Senator Stevens can say out loud what many have been thinking from the beginning. It is not a good idea in this day and age to route a public right of way across the end of the main runway of Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Ms Palin must be most respectful of Congressman Young. He has made great efforts on behalf of these bridges. But he is an Alaskan and a big Alaskan, and a big Republican too! He is big enough to admit that this one got a little bit ahead of itself. He can share the credit for restoring the honor of Alaska and the Republican Party.

The return of the funds need not imply disrespect for the efforts made to date on behalf of these bridges. The studies have made valuable contributions to our understanding of Cook Inlet and its surrounds. Some day, when Wasilla has expanded west to Point MacKenzie and Anchorage has redeveloped itself into a more important regional hub, the Knik Arm Crossing can be built to connect two real places. This bridge could be consistent the guidelines for Federal Highway funding. By that time, there will be infrastructure, and taxpayers, on both sides of the Arm, ready to share the burden of the cost of the bridge. (I know little about Ketchikan’s bridge to nowhere, though on the face of it, it appears less well conceived than the Knik Arm Crossing.)

It’s a win-win-win-win-win. With one decision, Governor Palin erases years of national talk about Alaska pork and pfd selfishness, not to mention nepotism, and replaces it with the most astoundingly generous gesture ever made by one of these United States. Who knows, if she goes through with it, we might begin to hear talk about the possibility of Vice President Palin.

Northern Urban Density

Originally Published in the Anchorage Daily News May 23 2007

KABATA (Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority) and its supporters have managed to frame the debate on the Knik Arm Crossing (one of the infamous Bridges to Nowhere) as if it was one between progressives (them) and no growth environmentalists (us). That is not and never has been the case.

Anchorage’s future depends on our successful devotion to conservatism. We must be fiscally conservative and make civic decisions with an eye toward minimizing the operational costs of our city. We must be environmentally conservative, making sure that we don’t make a mess of the most pristine urban environment left in the United States. And, finally, we must conserve the essential, irreplaceable wealth of our city – its proximity to the magnificence that is undeveloped Alaska.

Alaskans are especially and legitimately wary of density. We love our blue skies, open spaces, clean water and air. That’s why we live here. We don’t want to live in Detroit or Seattle or even Portland – too much traffic and smog and too far away from wilderness. We have started to experience the awful impacts of poorly, or unplanned, density – site condos and the traffic at Lake Otis and Tudor. We don’t want to turn Cook Inlet into the Potomac River and so we must stop pouring sewage into Cook Inlet. We must get beyond onsite septic systems before the hillside slides down on a layer of . . . . . . . .

Nonetheless, density is essential for successful conservatism in Anchorage.

Imagine Government Hill with the charm of San Francisco’s North Beach, Bootlegger Cove with the excitement of Miami’s South Beach. Think of the Hillside as a future Berkeley, California, and Spenard as Pioneer Square. Density can create great neighborhoods. Density makes possible a first class east-west rapid transit line with stops at the Airport, Historic Spenard, the Midtown Shopping District, the University District, the Medical District, and the MountainSide Residential District. It connects Kincaid Park and the Coastal Trail with Hillside Ski Areas and Chugach State Park. It fosters a similar line from Government Hill to Girdwood with stops at Ship Creek Center, Downtown, the Midtown Shopping District and park and ride facilities at Dimond and Huffman. How great would it be if you could jump on something like BART to get to Kincaid or Girdwood, no matter what the weather?

Rapid transit saves tax dollars, especially in a place the where the cost of building, maintaining and plowing roads is so great. Rapid transit makes possible affordable housing – housing with economical access to all of the amenities of Anchorage.

Density means we don’t have to sprawl. Encouraging our community to sprawl, whether it’s up the Parks Highway, or across the Knik Arm, moves Alaska farther away from those of us who live in Anchorage. When we keep our community compact, we keep Alaska close.

We live in an extreme environment. Everything costs more as a result. Utilities have to be buried twice as deeply as in communities with more temperate climates. Decisions that reduce the compactness of our community will inevitably raise somebody’s taxes. It costs more to live farther away in a northern city. The bridge will not make more affordable housing available. How can families with limited incomes afford to build (and maintain) their own roads, schools and fire stations? How can people with limited incomes afford to be the only tollpaying commuters in Anchorage?

Manhattan is 23 square miles. The City of San Francisco is 47 square miles. The non-military, non-airport, non-Chugach State Park portion of the Anchorage Bowl is 84 square miles. We have not run out of land!

During discussions this spring, members of the Anchorage Assembly expressed serious doubts about the wisdom of the Knik Arm Crossing, but voted to keep it in the plan for the purpose of further study. Now KABATA has hired a public relations firm to convince us that building the bridge is the right thing to do. Advocacy is not study! Fiscal conservatives must stop this misappropriation of public funds now! Instead, let’s get on with building a sustainable Big Wild Life for Anchorage here in the Bowl.