Subsidizing Alaska

Russell Sadler

Opponents of Alaskan statehood in the 1950s feared she would continue to be a subsidized ward of the federal government. Supporters of statehood argued, as a state with its own Legislature, Alaska would make its own decisions, attract new business and become less dependent on the federal government.

Statehood came to Alaska in 1959, but the 49th state continues to be heavily subsidized by the federal government. It’s principal businesses are still located in Seattle and Portland, not Anchorage or Juneau.

Alaska Airlines, one of the backbones of Alaska’s transportation system, is headquartered in Seattle. The Alaska Northwest Publishing Company, a major publisher of books on Alaska, is headquartered in Portland.

And Alaska Congressman Don Young’s $223 million “Bridge to Nowhere” is an example of the federal subsidies still needed by the 671,000 souls who rattle around in a state twice the size of Texas. Young’s bridge is just one of 120 “special projects” for Alaska in the $286 billion transportation bill recently passed by Congress. Alaska’s “special projects” total $1 billion -- third largest in the nation behind the populous states of California and Illinois.

Oh, did I mention that Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee? Those “conservative” Alaskans know how to “bring home the bacon.”

Alaska has been on the federal dole since 1867, when William Seward persuaded Congress to appropriate $7.2 million to buy the territory from the Russians. Called “Seward’s Folly” at the time, The Great Land has repaid that sum many times over in natural resources alone. But the sparsely populated state is huge. Just providing basic necessities is expensive, and the infrastructure to support human settlement would not exist without financial help from the federal government.

Which brings us to Don Young’s $223 million bridge.

It’s not really a bridge to nowhere. It will span the Tongass Narrows from Revillagigedo Island, where the town of Ketchikan is located to neighboring Gravina Island. There aren’t many flat spots in mountainous Southeast Alaska, but Gravina Island is one of the few. Decapitated by scouring glaciers and further flattened by D-9 Cats, Gravina Island is the home of Ketchikan’s small, but busy, international airport.

The folks in Ketchikan get to and from their airport the way most Southeast Alaskans get around from island to island -- by ferry.

Buses from hotels drive onto the ferry, cross the narrows in less than seven minutes and are driven to the terminal. Locals simply park in Ketchikan, walk onto the ferry, cross the narrows and walk to the airport terminal. The distance is shorter than walking from the domestic to the international terminal at SeaTac.

Young wants to build a bridge so people can drive right to the airport terminal without waiting for a ferry. Sounds simple, right? But this is Alaska. Nothing is simple.

The Tongass Narrows is the main route along the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau. It is used by some of the largest cruise ships afloat in the increasingly popular Alaska tourist trade. Ketchikan, a regional center of 15,000, is a major stop for those cruise ships. Any bridge that crosses the narrows must be high enough to allow these behemoths to pass underneath at any stage of the tide.

Any bridge built directly adjacent to the airport and high enough to allow cruise ships to pass underneath will rise hundreds of feet in the air -- right next to an airport runway where dark, rainy, wind-swept or fog-shrouded instrument landings are the rule rather than the exception, especially in Alaska's long winter. Such a bridge would be a prescription for a terrible disaster.

So Alaska Department of Transportation officials moved the whole project six miles south of town. Now Young’s Bridge looks a lot like the I-205 bridge over the Columbia east of the Portland Airport. A bridge with a 200 ft. clearance for cruise ships crosses the East Channel, continues across Pennock Island just like the I-205 bridge crosses Government Island in the Columbia, then a lower bridge crosses West Channel and a six mile highway takes people to the airport. The trip by car or bus will take about the same time as the present airport ferry crossing.

So why are they building this $223 million bridge if the ferries are adequate and no time is saved? This is Alaska. Gravina Island is rare, valuable flat land. While the ferries may be adequate for airport passengers, a bridge is necessary to create the automobile access necessary to develop the rest of Gravina Island as a commercial area.

There isn’t enough capital in Alaska -- public or private -- to finance what Alaskans want to do in their state. Like many of the people in the American West, they simply demand their congressional delegation use Uncle Sam as their banker instead.

In Alaska, public investment precedes private investment, even among people who believe they are rugged individualists, fervent defenders of free enterprise and opponents of entitlements -- for everyone but themselves.

  • Tom Keppler (unverified)

    Kind of like Measure 37 in reverse: a government action INCREASES the value of a piece of land. Why not use part of that increase to fund the bridge if it is such a good idea?

  • yoyo (unverified)

    Here's what the libertarians over at the Cascade Policy Institute have to say about this:

  • steve conn (unverified)

    Your article is clear and informative. Why not send it to the Anchorage Press for expanded Alaska readership?

  • paul brown (unverified)

    I can say that you have part of you information correct, in 59 the vote to turn Alaska into a ward of the goverment was completed when then President Carter locked up over half of the state into federal reserves. It would be nice since most of the businesses in the lower 48 do not recognize Alaska as part of the USA, let Alaskans make the desisions for Alaskans. In other words butt out of Alaska's business and let us develop the state correctly. You folks have screwed up your states enough, leave ours alone.

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    let Alaskans make the desisions for Alaskans. In other words butt out of Alaska's business and let us develop the state correctly.

    Right on and power to the people! Alaska for Alaskans!!

    You mean, of course, by "we" the native Alaskans, Paul...and not the colonial-minded extractive industries, yes?

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    I'd be perfectly happy to let Alaskans make the decisions for Alaskans. But not with my Floridian tax dollars. If the Tongass Narrows bridge is such a great idea, howsabout every Alaskan forgo their dividend checks until it's paid for?

  • Foxtrot 13 (unverified)

    Actually Native Alaskans have alot of say in their State. They don't have reservations but rather "Native Corporations" which hold their natural resources in trust.

    Native Alaskans also have a much more original concept of their lives prior to the development by the state. They own their culture and don't rely on a jig-saw replacement like many tribes in the lower 48 who were moved to reservations and had their young moved to orphanages.

    The majority of the Native Alaskans I've known when I lived in Alaska welcome technology and development being they own their land and their resources. Though a road is a dirty word in the bush, many tribes welcome roads and access to the outside world. You can't make the assumptive "imperialist" argument with Alaskan natives. They participate at every level of business and government.

    So when you say "Alaska for Alaskans" - yes that would include Native Alaskans who benefit heavily from Ted Stevens in the Senate and Don Young in the House tag-teaming pork. And by the way - this bridge is nothing in the way of Pork, if you dug around this is just the tip of the ice-berg.

    Ted Stevens was the big champion of the Missle Defense Shield (the one that didn't work well). It was a boondoggle he thought would create thousands of national guard jobs in his state.

  • Kent (unverified)

    As a long-time Alaska resident and environmentalist I'll be the first to say that these two bridges are indefensible. In fact, no one I know in Juneau thinks they are a good idea.

    That said, any criticism of Alaska as a subsidized welfare state has to take into account several points.

    1. Most of Alaska's natural resources remain locked up in Federal hands. 60 percent of Alaska remains in Federal control. Petroleum reserves, timber, even fisheries are largely controlled by the Federal government rather than the state. Most Alaskans would be perfectly happy to get off the Federal dole in exchange for control over the Federal resources in the state.

    2. Access to capital is a major reason why lower 48 firms continue to dominate Alaska's business. It's just rather hard or impossible for small Alaska-based firms to compete with the large corporate firms from Seattle, whether it's fisheries or shipping or airlines. And, of course, logistically it often makes more sense to operate Alaska businesses out of the lower 48. It's the same reason people in the Northwest drive cars made in Japan and Detroit rather than Seattle and Portland.

    3. A large percentage of Alaska-based earnings are declared and taxed outside the state. Many many fishermen, oil workers, soldiers, merchant marine, fishing companies, fish processing companies, airlines etc. etc. earn much of their income in Alaska but declare residency outside the state for tax purposes. Many individuals work in Alaska but keep their residences in the lower 48. Many companies operating in Alaska are incorporated in Delaware and other states for tax purposes. So all these comparisions of how much Federal tax dollars Alaskans pay compared to what they receive in benefits is distorted by this fact. If you actually looked at the income tax revenues on income EARNED in Alaska rather than that PAID in Alaska I suspect that Alaska wouldn't appear to be nearly the welfare state that current statistics make it out to be.

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    Kent -- thanks for replying. What drives me nuts about the bridge to nowhere is that people from Outside simplify Alaska and its issues to justify attacking a bridge that obviously is the pork to take all pork.

    Pork is pork regardless of what state in which it occurs. One only need look across Oregon to see what pork buys. The first half of this post is as big a waste as that bridge.

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    i have to say (sigh) that i agree in principle with the CCI on the issue of pork. Oregonians should pay for Oregon roads -- if we had the money. unfortunately, thanks to the Defense budget, Iraq war and tax-cuts-for-the-needy-rich, Ross Perot's big sucking sound has moved to the Beaver State in the form of federal taxes leaving, never to be seen again. money we might have used to fix roads, bridges and other internal infrastructure is being used intead to kill people in exotic lands, make sure the wealthiest one-percent of Americans do not face undue tax burdens (no taxation without a summer home in the Hamptons), and that GE, Lockheed, General Motorls, Exxon and the other patriotic corporations (and their international owners) get a multi-billion dollar return to their profits from the investment made by us in the first place.

    in other words, for Oregon, this isn't pork. it's bread and water. these things have to be done (and when they have the word "Interstate" attached to them, they belong to the nation and not just Oregon). most of what Pete DeFazio got for us was necessary, not the kind of frivilous grabbing that Young & Stevens get off on. i know the CCI's answer will be to cut all taxes, and they really are clueless about how a decent society cares for all its members, but we do pay way too much for way too things that are way too wrong. cut the Pentagon, raise taxes, end wars, let the corporations pay their own way. that way more people will have more of their own money to spend on what they need -- and states will have the ability to raise necessary taxes without these being an undue burden.

  • Sid (unverified)

    Blue state subsidize the red states (mostly, except for Texas) and urban areas subsidze rural areas. That's just the way it is. The tax base is in urban America... and look at what we get.

  • Red Oregon Lurker (unverified)

    So T.A.

    The Eastbank Esplanade and Street Car are "bread and water?" Hmmmm, looks more like pork to me.

    As for locals paying for bridges - Oregon is in no position to complain about our bridges being built and maintained by federal funds.

    Alaska's captial is accesible only by boat or plane. The cost of the bridge (available from their Unlce Ted Stevens - chair of the Appropriations Commitee) is about the same as moving the capital which the town of Juneau is dependent on.

    This is also much cheaper than subsidizing farries from the mainland to Juneau for the next thrity years either. It's truly long over due and no more pork than the St. Johns, Fremont, Marquam and Sellwood bridges were when Portland got them.

    I'm also surprised to hear your contributors making the same arguments as Don McIntyre about taxes. I thought it was the D's stance that taxes were the duty of a citizen to contribute to those with less? Looks like as long as you've got your bridge the younger states can just go without basic infrastructure.

  • theberle (unverified)

    Didn't I read somewhere that the Murkowskis own a ton of land on Gravina island?

  • Rob Glenn (unverified)

    When was the last time some one took an International Flight fron Ketchikan Internation Airport? There are maybe cargo flights into Canada, but there are no passenger flights, therefore who is it helping?

    How long have the ferries worked. Long enough to know that they are a lot more reliable then Alaska Airlines. I have never in 3 years of living in Ketchikan not been able to catch a flight because of the ferry, but I have been at the airport many times when my flight could not land.

    It is a bridge to no where, considering from Ketchikan to get anywhere you must fly or take a boat. A road to the mainland would be a much better idea.

    The roads already in Ketchikan are crap. The are full of potholes. So why not fix them before this bridge.

    Cancer is high in Ketchikan and that is possibly due to the High contents of Haleoacidic acids in the water that the city says will cost 35 million and 5 years to fix.

    Dropout rates are high and teen pregnancy is sky rocketing. Drugs are big in the "gateway."

    Fix the problems of the town, then worry about the governors land on Gravina!

  • paul brown (unverified)

    Some of you have some good points as to what Alaska is doing as a State and though I don't agree with how our state goverment does things I voted and help elect those in office. I do disagree with Mr.Dunagan comment let me ask, who built your bridges that connect all of those island out in the keys together. Hmmm the federal goverment using the taxpayers money. Quit whinning... You got something for nothing. And Frank old buddy I never said "we" I did say Alaskans I think Alaska should control the manufacturing of petroleum products out of our state and the sales within. We do not have to be pay the highest prices for gas or fuel in the nation. But this is for another forum.

  • yoyo (unverified)

    apparently the bridge is now being canceled:

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    Money no longer earmarked, is what I heard about the Tongass Narrows Bridge.

    But I'm sure the majority of Alaskans would forgo their oil dividends so that Don Young can name a boondoggle after his wife. Or not.

    That state can't send Tony Knowles to Washington DC fast enough for me.

  • Bill (unverified)

    Oregonians, particularly residents of the portland metro area, have a lot to talk about when it comes to federal pork.

    For instance, forget about roads - if it weren't for Federal Pork, courtesy of Mssrs. Packwood and Hatfield, the whole MAX system wouldn't exist. If it did and we paid fares based on local/state financing of MAX only, it would cost $15 to $20 per person one-way for three-zone trips. No one, not even the drug dealers that now use the system as low-cost distribution, would ride. Then where would Portland and the latte left be regarding the "liveable" moniker that everyone likes to assign Portland? And what about Columbia Villa Redev? And what about ANY federal monies involved in Portland revitalization via transportation dollars, particularly the Pearl District and all of its very wealthy residents benefiting from those subsidies?

    Seriously, take care of the plank in your own eye... a very wise Jew once said.

  • foxtrot13 (unverified)

    If you think Tony Knowles is "progressive" I think you'll be surprised as he fights as hard as Ted Stevens for ANWR. The current Sen. Murkowski and him are about the same position to the right of the Rockafeller Republican set and just about neck and neck with Christine Todd Whitman.

    There were continual rumors of Gov. Knowles potentially leaving the D side over ANWR and running for office under the Republican flag. He almost lost his reelection campaign to a joke of a candidate who attempted to buy the campaign just by association with Bill Clinton (and when I say joke - one for the record books after the smoke cleared and his former staff started talking).

    If not for the far right who ran homo-phobic adds worthy of a SNL skit (these adds caused a split in the Republicans) he would have lost. Additionally write-in campaign by a last minute credible Republican and the emergence of a third party "Republican Moderate Party" saved Knowles' bacon. He pulled off the Clintonesque win by splitting the conservative wedge voters.

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    I was planning on biting my tongue in this debate and I am going to do that from a broader policy standpoint, but I have to correct some basic facts.

    Red Or Lurker: Juneau is on the mainland. I know, I grew up there. It's correct that it is not connected by road, but it's not an island. A road to Skagway (as proposed by the Gov--who just got a shiny new jet BTW) has been talked about since I was a kid, but it would only replace the ferry system north of Juneau, not south to Petersburg, Wrangell, Sitka, Ketchikan, Prince Rupert, BC, and Bellingham.

    Foxtrot13: Tony Knowles is a friend of mine. He is a life-long Democrat and that is never going to change. I've never heard this rumor that you speak of. You say "he almost lost his reelection," the fact is he won by 31 points! He was also the first Alaska Governor to get in excess of 50% of the vote in 20 years. Being in favor of ANWR development in Alaska is a little like being in favor of the bottle bill in Oregon.

    From the earliest days of statehood discussions for Alaska, there was a common acceptance of the fact that Alaska would have to develop its natural resource to support a state government. The discover of vast quantities of oil and gas at Prudhoe Bay a decade after statehood made Alaskans believe for about 15 years that there was more money than they knew what to do with. Democrats in the Legislature and Republican Governor Jay Hammond pushed a proposal to set aside money in the Permanent Fund--a savings account into which 25 percent of the royalties from oil and gas development is deposited. There is now $31.5 billion in the Permanent Fund. The fund was a recognition that the North Slope oil was a finite resource and that it had to be shared with future generations.

    Now I am not about to defend the actions of Ted Stevens or Don Young. In my early days in politics I worked to defeat each of them. But I do have to say that a small state, far from Washington, would be wise to follow the Alaska model of reelecting members of Congress for decades, allowing them to build seniority and rise to power. It works for Alaska. It worked for Oregon when we had Packwood, Hatfield and Al Ullman. It worked for Washington when they had Maggie and Scoop. It's the way Washington works.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    Senority heavy Senators may "work" for small [population] states, but I don't think it works for America. That Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming [combined population less than 4 million] have the same representation in the Senate as California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, and Pennsylvania [combined population more than 114 million] is anti-democratic in the extreme.

    By the way, the boondoggle bridges appear to be history: Two 'Bridges to Nowhere' Tumble Down in Congress

  • (Show?)

    Tom: The name of our country is the United STATES of America. It's not the United People, it's United States. And Oregon is one of those small states. We too are over-represented in the Senate and in the Electoral College. This system worked very well for us in Oregon for quite a while. Just look around at the 500 buildings named after Mark Hatfield. There weren't Oregonians whining about pork going elsewhere when it was flowing here.

    Frankly I am a lot more comfortable casting my lot with the US Senate than with the more "representative" US House of Representatives. Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson designed this system to protect us from the whims of the masses.

    And while the Congressional mandate to build the bridges is gone, Alaska gets to keep the $452 million.

    While again I don't want to defend the actions of Stevens and Young, it's important to remember that a lot of Alaska still lacks, nearly 30 years after Prudhoe Bay oil started to flow through the pipeline, some things that most of us in the lower 48 take for granted--like being able to drive out of town or drive to the airport.

  • paul brown (unverified)


    A voice of reason in a vast world of libreal whining and finger pointing. You are correct in most of your points and let me help (though you don't need any) Congress ear marked the bridges not the State of Alaska people. Alaska Department of Transportation ADOT lost a lot of planned projects because of the earmarking of the bridges. With the redistribution of the funding, a lot of needed road projects are going to be completed and I might get to drive on a road that isn't full of pot holes. Maybe they can repair the roads around southeastern also.

    As for the ANWR project I truely hope it goes through soon so the state of Alaska can have some LNG, instead, of being held hostage for oil prices. Gas prices here are higher than any other state including Hawaii and our gas tax per gallon of gas is lowest in the country. Right now all they do is burn the stuff, know wonder we have global warming.


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