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Alaska's 'bridges to nowhere'

Key lawmakers want to start building a $2 billion bridge to boost development, prompting battle over pork.

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Staring from metropolitan Anchorage into Cook Inlet, the far shoreline across Knik Arm seems a world away.

Inhabiting this natural moat, beluga whales surface at high tide. Moose and brown bears trail the willowy lowlands. Bald eagles are as common as blue jays in the lower 48.

Today, motorists can't drive directly to the tiny hamlet of Port MacKenzie from here, but that could change, courtesy of US taxpayers. Two Alaska Republicans with clout in Congress, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, are pushing for funds that could send the Anchorage suburbs leapfrogging into those hinterlands.

The proposed $2 billion Knik Arm Bridge - one of several projects that could make Alaska the biggest winner in this year's transportation-bill sweepstakes - has stirred outrage from critics who see it as pork-barrel spending that will send federal deficits spiraling up. Some call it "the Big Dig of the Far North," a reference to Boston's overbudget tunnel project.

Now, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and others intend to launch a Senate-floor battle dismissing this project, and plans for a $175 million sister bridge near Ketchikan, as "bridges to nowhere."

The fight highlights how reauthorization of the massive transportation bill - which will set the nation's highway agenda through 2009 - has become the subject of intense debate amid rising federal budget deficits.

President Bush has vowed to veto any federal transit spending over $256 billion. Yet the Senate proposal is $318 billion, and Rep. Young's House proposal once stood at $375 billion.

In the political parlaying, critics claim that Alaska - large in land, small in citizen numbers, and fifth in transportation dollars - wields disproportionate clout. This year, it could win twice as much highway money as New Jersey. Beyond transportation, Alaska receives seven federal dollars for each tax dollar sent to the US Treasury.

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