Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor Defends 'Bridge to Nowhere'

Two years ago the small Alaska town of Ketchikan, where five generations of my family have lived, became the poster child for all that is wrong with the United States government. We wanted a bridge to connect us to our airport, which is on a different island from our town. The bridge had been promised to us 30 years ago when the government chose—over the objections of many in this community—to put our new airport across the narrows from Ketchikan. Unfortunately, when it finally arrived, the money for that bridge came in the form of a congressional earmark.

Earmarks were once considered a good way for elected representatives to meet the needs of their communities. The federal bureaucracy could not move fast enough or act specifically enough to meet those needs, whereas a targeted earmark could.

But since then earmarks have become synonymous with the worst excesses of federal spending, the pork-barrel projects that bloat our budget, compound our deficit and raise our taxes.

Earmarks actually make up less than 1 percent of the federal budget, but they are the political equivalent of a big, slow softball floating toward the plate. Politically, it's as pointless to be "for" earmarks as it is to be "against" moms and apple pie.

But the politics of earmarks didn't mean much to us up here in Alaska. We were too busy focusing on the need for a bridge to get to our airport. Then somehow our bridge became known as the "Bridge to Nowhere."

To us, the name seemed odd. Ketchikan was never "nowhere." It is 90 minutes north of Seattle by plane. The rest of Alaska, including Anchorage, with a population approaching 300,000, lies to the north—well beyond "nowhere." The media reports never seemed to mention that Ketchikan has a year-round population of 14,000—making it the fourth-largest community in the state. And they forgot to account for the more than 250,000 people who pass through our airport every year, and the nearly 1 million visitors who come here each summer, mostly on cruise ships.

What also went unstated was our town's need for development. Ketchikan is perched on the side of three mountains and is only a few blocks wide in spots. There is no place for it to grow. Gravina, the island with the airport, is one of the few spots in the region with flat, undeveloped land. We need that space for the houses and businesses we hope will replace the timber industry that once dominated the area. A bridge would provide more access to that land.

But this rarely got reported, and so we continued to take our lumps in the news. In a matter of weeks, the entire country began to equate my town with government waste. By the end of 2006, things finally quieted down a bit and we went back to being blissfully anonymous.

Then Sarah Palin became John McCain's vice presidential nominee, and there on national television was our governor bragging (not quite truthfully) about how she stopped the Bridge to Nowhere. Just like that, we were back on the front page, exhibit A in Palin's reformist résumé.

We settled in for a second round of public lashing. Sure, we had been unhappy last spring when the governor shelved our project by sending press releases to the media and not telling us to our face. But we were really disappointed when she called us "that community" on national television, in the same tone of voice that Bill Clinton had once used to describe "that woman."

But we will get over it. We will even make up with our governor, no matter what happens on Nov. 4. That's what Alaskans do. We pull together to make a go of it in a place where survival—physical or economic—is not necessarily a given.

Ketchikan does not claim to be representative of anything, least of all some long-lost fantasy of small-town America. We are a working-class community that is trying—like many others—to transform itself from a resource-based economy into a service economy. We are struggling to create new jobs and stanch the flow of residents to the big city. And we have problems that are unique to our geography: our frequently unpleasant weather and our island topography, which makes roads without bridges an impossibility. But we are a small part of this country's greater whole. We are not "nowhere." We are somewhere. In America.