The abuse of political influence and power continues to show its scandalous face in our Congress. Washington, D.C., may be a long way off, yet it's important to remember that decisions made there can and do have direct and indirect impacts on our lives here in Klickitat County.
Here's one example: Because U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska is head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and U.S. Rep. Don Young of Alaska is chair of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, they have been liberally taking care of their own in Alaska. Using their powerful committee assignments to bring the "bacon" home, they worked to push a $231 million bridge project through Congress. The bridge, which would connect the city of Ketchikan (population: 8,000 and declining) with Gravina Island (population: 50), has been termed "the bridge to nowhere."
To serve those 50 island residents, who currently take a seven-minute ride on a ferry to get to and from Ketchikan, here is what your $231 million in taxes will buy: A double-span bridge that is as long as the Golden Gate Bridge and taller than the Brooklyn Bridge.
So consider that Congress approved $231 million for a bridge to connect a small town and an island that is virtually uninhabited (although it does have a small airport). Then take a glance at our aging Hood River Toll Bridge across the Columbia River, the bridge that connects Hood River and Bingen-White Salmon and links Interstate 84 with State Route 14. For 2006, Congress provided only $640,000 to continue work on the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) of a proposed new bridge across the Columbia River -- not enough to complete the FEIS, which will cost $1 million. In fact, planning for a possible new bridge has been on hold since January 2004 due to the lack of funding.
The cost to build a new bridge across the Columbia River has been pegged at between $180-$200 million. The existing bridge, which was built in 1926, serves an average of about 8,000 vehicles a day year-round, with traffic peaking at about 12,000 a day at times in the summer. And its use is increasing constantly.
"The bridge could be built as soon as we got the money," explained Dale Robins, senior transportation planner with the Vancouver-based Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council. "It would take about two years to construct it."
Put it in perspective: A bridge getting 8,000 users a day, which links two major highway systems in two states is given $640,000. Yet a bridge to serve a handful of people a day gets $231 million. The disparity is not based on merit, it's based only on which individuals hold the most control over the purse strings in Congress.
Since federal money pays for these bridge projects, the money should be going to where it will effectively serve the most people, whether that's in Hood River-White Salmon or New Orleans or Green Bay. Rank the projects objectively, and we'll gladly take our chances that our Columbia River bridge project would rank very high.
Public outcry recently forced Congress to redirect the money away from the bridge, but don't be fooled: Although Congress did not earmark the money directly to build that bridge, it will still be going to the state of Alaska, which can use it for whatever transportation project it wants. Like a bridge to Gravina Island, perhaps?
This is an example of the way political power and big money get tangled up in Washington, D.C. Nothing illegal is going on here by any means, it's just that the priorities and processes are all wrong. And it affects us right here in the Columbia River Gorge.