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Last Update: October 14, 2006 9:34 AM

Stevens says he'll quit if bridge funds diverted

U.S. SENATE: Amendment to rescind money sends Alaska's senior senator into tirade.

WASHINGTON -- A freshman senator from Oklahoma, saying he was answering America's call to stop wasteful spending, tried Thursday to divert $452 million from two massive Alaska bridge projects and spend some of it on a hurricane-damaged bridge in New Orleans.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn's amendment to rescind federal money from the Knik and Gravina bridges won him the fury of Sen. Ted Stevens and only a smattering of votes.

His attempt failed 82-15 after fist-pounding arguments from Stevens, R-Alaska.

Stevens threatened to quit, to become a "wounded bull on the floor of this Senate," and he vowed that if his colleagues passed the bill, "I will be taken out of here on a stretcher."

"I will put the Senate on notice -- and I don't kid people -- if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state, to take money only from our state, I'll resign from this body," he said. "This is not the Senate I came to. This is not the Senate I've devoted 37 years to, if one senator can decide he'll take all the money from one state to solve a problem of another."

Editorial writers and talk-show guests around the country have ridiculed the spans proposed for Anchorage and Ketchikan as "bridges to nowhere." But Alaska's congressional delegation succeeded in getting nearly half a billion dollars for them in the national highway bill, which became law this summer. Then came Hurricane Katrina, and critics -- from the Heritage Foundation to the Sierra Club -- pointed to the bridge money as the epitome of pork, the kind of project America must do without.

Alaska Sens. Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, though, said the bridges are the path to Alaska's future. Ketchikan is surrounded by water, mountains and national forest. To grow, it must expand to Gravina Island, they said.

Anchorage is similarly hemmed in, they said.

"Across the Knik Arm is land owned by the state and by private people. We've been trying to get a bridge across there for as long as I can remember," Stevens said.

Coburn wanted to remove all the money from the Gravina bridge and devote it to repairing the Twin Spans Bridge on Interstate 10, connecting New Orleans with Slidell, La.

With the nation's debt ballooning, with the war in Iraq and all the hurricane damage, the country has to set priorities, Coburn said.

Repairing a freeway span that hundreds of thousands of people travel over each year "should be a higher priority than constructing two massive and expensive bridges of dubious value and little merit," Coburn said.

Even Alaskans oppose the bridge spending, he argued, and read from letters Alaskans wrote to newspapers criticizing the projects.

Before the vote, he modified the proposal to say only $125 million of the Alaska bridge money would go to Louisiana. Alaska would have been able to keep the rest as long as it didn't spend any of it to plan, design or build the Knik or Gravina bridges.

Stevens said he fought for Alaska's statehood when he worked for the Eisenhower administration, and he protested what he said was discrimination against the state and an intrusion on its sovereignty.

"This amendment is an offense to me," he said. "It is not only an offense to me, it's a threat to every person in the state."

He demanded that Alaska be treated on an equal basis with other states. He reminded the Senate of the 1964 Alaska earthquake, which he said was America's largest disaster before Katrina.

"I remember being a young lawyer, being forced to borrow money to keep the doors of our law firm open, to borrow money to repair my home that was destroyed by that earthquake, partially," he said.

Murkowski said that while media accounts portray the bridges as a fancy of Alaska Congressman Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Alaskans have been working for both bridges for years. She cautioned against taking the temperature of the state from only a few letters published in newspapers.

Emily Ferry, one of the Alaskans campaigning against the bridges, described the state's opposition as more than that.

"Alaskans have filled the newspapers with letters, signed petitions, and sent letters to Congress offering to sacrifice the less-than-necessary bridges," Ferry, who works for the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, said in a written statement after the vote. "It's unfortunate that the Senators from Alaska failed to reflect the compassion and common sense shown by Alaskans since Hurricane Katrina hit."


Daily News reporter Liz Ruskin can be reached at lruskin@adn.com or 1-202-383-0007.