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Palin yet to say ‘no thanks’ to other big earmarks

- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2008

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has said repeatedly that she told Congress "thanks but no thanks" to the notorious bridge-to-nowhere project derided nationally as an example of pork-barrel spending. But some are waiting to see whether she'll also pull the plug on another big earmark dubbed "Don Young Way" that could benefit her hometown.

Named after Alaska's lone member in the U.S. House, Republican Rep. Don Young, the Knik Arm Bridge proposal was one of two so-called "bridges to nowhere" that won more than $400 million combined through congressional earmarks in 2005. If built, it would span two miles of Cook Inlet and link Anchorage to nearby Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Mrs. Palin, a surprise pick last week as Sen. John McCain's vice-presidential running mate, nixed a bridge proposal last year that would have spanned the Clarence Strait from Gravina Island, home to about 50 people, to Ketchikan Island.

"I told the Congress 'thanks but no thanks' on that bridge to nowhere," she said in a speech to the Republican National Convention on Wednesday. "If our state wanted to build a bridge, we were going to build it ourselves."

However, the Knik Arm Bridge project remains alive - for now. Though she had expressed support for the project, Mrs. Palin called for a complete review of the plans this summer. Amid uproar about both projects, Congress in 2005 allowed Alaska to keep funding for the Anchorage and Gravina bridges, but said the state could spend the money on other projects instead.

In 2003, Diane Keller, who became mayor of Wasilla after Mrs. Palin left office, testified before Congress that the project would reduce traffic congestion in Wasilla.

"If the Knik Arm Crossing is built, then an even greater congestion problem in and out of Wasilla may be avoided," Mrs. Keller testified.

The Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority referred questions about the status of the project to state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesman Roger Wetherell, who said the project would link "two strategic ports and facilitate the construction of the Alaska natural gas pipeline." He also said plans call for private financing in addition to state and federal money.

Critics say the project carries an estimated price tag of up to a half-billion dollars, including private money, and that the public funds could be put to better use.

"We absolutely would want to see the project canceled," said Lois Epstein, director of the nonprofit Alaska Transportation Priorities Project. "We've got a lot of dirt roads people would like to see paved."

After Mrs. Palin hailed her state's rejection of the bridge to nowhere, Democratic critics scoured her years as mayor and governor for earmark requests. Earlier this year, she sought dozens of earmarks on behalf of the state in a request to Sen. Ted Stevens.

"Sarah Palin is not the reformer that the McCain campaign claims she is and her support for the types of earmarks McCain rails against is one more example," Democratic National Committee spokesman Damien LaVera said.

But Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella said the governor has a record of cleaning up corrupt earmarks.

"As mayor, Governor Palin worked within the confines of the current system to get results that were in the best interest of her city. She saw firsthand how the earmark system was broken and put waste before critical needs," Miss Comella said.

"It´s the reason why as governor she cut back on earmarks, saved Alaska taxpayers money and helped clean up a corrupt system."

Mr. McCain has railed against earmarks and said he has never requested a pork-barrel project for his home state of Arizona during his two decades in Congress.

This week, Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense issued a report showing that as mayor of Wasilla, Mrs. Palin helped secure nearly $27 million in earmarks for her community. Under Mrs. Palin, the town also hired a powerful lobbying firm, Robertson, Monagle & Eastaugh, whose partners included a former chief of staff to Mr. Stevens.

The earmarks secured for Wasilla included $1.5 million for water and sewer improvements, $15 million for a commuter rail project and a $500,000 for a shelter for homeless youths, the taxpayers group said.

"When she became mayor, she certainly figured out how to turn on the tap to get them funding," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "As governor, she moved on to request earmarks, though to a lesser extent than her predecessors."