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The failed Knik Arm bridge wasted $100 million. Don Young's name is still on it.

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 13, 2016
  • Published September 12, 2016

A street sign on a lonely gravel road in the birch forest of Point MacKenzie bears the name of Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the last token of $100 million wasted on his vanity.

In 2005, as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Young earmarked the national highway bill with $230 million to build a bridge across Knik Arm. The bill named the 2-mile bridge, which would have cost more than $1 billion, for Young himself.

"It'll be legacy for my grandkids," Young told a reporter in 2005. "And that certainly makes me feel good."

But the greed of Young's earmarks in the bill embarrassed Congress into changing the system. The bill gave Alaska 17 times more money per capita in earmarks than the average U.S. resident, an imbalance symbolized by bridges to nowhere in Ketchikan and on Knik Arm.

Congress finally banned earmarks. At the time, Sen. John McCain said: "I know it's corruption because I've seen it with my own eyes. And it will go a long way toward restoring the confidence of the American people in what we do here. No bridges to nowhere."

Young had also used his position to steer money to projects benefiting campaign contributors in other states, including the Coconut Road freeway interchange in Florida. Congress passed an unprecedented request for the FBI to investigate him in 2008.

That investigation ended in 2010 after a case against Sen. Ted Stevens collapsed due to misconduct by the Department of Justice. Possibly, Young benefited from lucky timing, when the lawyers pursuing him were themselves disgraced.

After the earmark ban, there was no chance of more federal money going to the Knik Arm bridge. Alaska was freed to use the money on other, needed roads and bridges — enough to make a huge difference in getting around the region.

Instead, the state spent 10 years and more than $100 million of the earmark on administrative costs and studies. In June, Gov. Bill Walker finally killed the project for good. A sign came down from project offices on 15th Avenue.

How could this have happened?

The state created a separate bureaucracy to manage the bridge project, called the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority. KABATA's politically connected leaders — former Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch was one of them — received higher salaries than Alaska's governor. Young's earmark was their kitty.

They said the bridge could pay for itself with tolls. The idea could never have worked. You can't build a toll bridge to empty land and expect to make money.

Critics of the project dug through KABATA's many reports and discovered that the bridge wouldn't cut travel time to any populated area. Wasilla would be 12 minutes farther away from Anchorage via the bridge than the existing route. The bridge would cut seven minutes from the seven-hour drive to Fairbanks only with the additional construction of an expensive new highway from Point MacKenzie to Houston.

To make the toll numbers work, consultant studies predicted that Point MacKenzie would explode from nothing into the second largest city in Alaska. Independent population and planning experts said that was ridiculous. The federal government rejected loan applications based on the KABATA studies seven times.

The critics also found in KABATA's studies that only a four-lane bridge could carry enough traffic to generate all those tolls. But KABATA planned a two-lane bridge.

KABATA didn't give up, because it had Young's money to spend. And it used that money to hire a "legislative liaison," which I'd call a lobbyist, to work full time on getting more money from Juneau.

It almost worked. Mat-Su politicians got a ferry, a port and a rail line for Point MacKenzie — all unfinished or unused — so they might have gotten money for the bridge too. Bridge boosters nearly won state loan guarantees that would have made taxpayers cover losses for investors who built the bridge.

Legislation failed by only two votes in the state House to sell state bonds for the project. That was in 2014. We came that close, just two years ago, to buying the bridge with money it turns out we don't have.

Bob French, a mechanical engineer who lives in Government Hill, which the bridge approach would have crossed, said he went to Juneau six or seven times, "to teach math to legislators."

The experience changed him, especially a meeting in which a legislator listened to his presentation and realized French was right. But he said he could not vote against legislative leadership.

"The whole thing told me there is no reality in Juneau," he said. "It is all about power. And that is a shame."

Jamie Kenworthy, a South Anchorage investor and a bridge opponent, said the fiasco grew from the belief that politics trumps economics.

"That kind of thinking is, to me, grossly immature, and shows that Alaska is not ready to grow up in a world where you have to do your homework and make economic choices," he said.

French said the project inflicted lasting damage on Government Hill. The threat of demolition drove down businesses in the area, including a gas station that pulled out its pumps and a motel that became a drug haven.

KABATA bought some buildings for the route, including the motel, but failed to winterize them, so pipes burst and mold set in. Workers checking for asbestos smashed walls. The damage left no choice but to tear down four buildings, some after the project was already dead (including a house I lived in from 1988 to 2002).

These sorry megaproject tales go on and on because Alaska voters don't hold our politicians accountable for their failures.

Last week I wrote an email to Matt Shuckerow, communications director for Young, asking for an interview.

It said: "I am writing a column for ADN on the cancellation of the Knik Arm Bridge. Since this was a signature project for Rep. Young and bore his name, would he care to comment on the end of the project? Does he regret advancing a project that consumed $100 million without producing any results? Who does he blame for the failure of the project?"

I didn't receive a response.

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