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The Alaska Congressional delegation over the past several months has quietly intensified work to secure federal help in developing a sparsely populated area outside of Anchorage, an effort that could yield significant financial benefits for family members and current and former aides of the three Republicans, according to the Congressional Record and state and local land records.
Although stymied in 2005 when Congressional reformers lampooned their “Bridges to Nowhere” earmarks, the delegation — made up of Republican Rep. Don Young and Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski — has continued to back a plan to develop south-central Matanuska-Susitna Borough, a largely unpopulated region of Alaska that currently is difficult to access but could become a major new suburb of Anchorage if a bridge is ultimately built to it.
If the area is successfully developed, that could mean a significant windfall for a number of people close to the Congressional delegation — including Young’s daughter, Joni, Stevens’ chief of staff and campaign manager and Murkowski’s state director — some of whom purchased land in the area just a few months before then-Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Young began substantive work on a massive highway bill in early 2003.
Although Murkowski’s office did not return requests for comment, Young spokesman Steve Hansen dismissed any personal benefit to the lawmaker’s daughter as incidental and said that Young’s long-standing support for the project is to help ensure the continued growth of the Anchorage area.
“The Mat-Su Valley is the largest growing community in the state ... how many people are going to benefit from this project?” Hansen argued, adding that “Don has been talking about this for many many years” and that his daughter and son-in-law own only a small parcel of land on south-central Mat-Su.
Stevens spokesman Aaron Saunders said Friday that Stevens has supported the Knik Arm Bridge project for 30 years “because it is what is best for Alaska. ... With estimates projecting the population of South Central Alaska will grow by up to 200,000 people in the next 25 years, Alaskans need the Knik Arm Crossing to handle the area’s growing transportation needs.”
Saunders also said Stevens is not pursuing provisions in this year’s Water Resources Development Act bill because he does not sit on the Environment and Public Works Committee and that “Sen. Stevens and his staff have not been in any way involved in drafting language contained in the House bill. Sen. Stevens and his staff have not been contacted about this language. Any suggestion that they have been would be wildly inaccurate. ... The Nelson Commission report sets ethics guidelines and Sen. Stevens’ staff members follow Senate disclosure rules.”
When Young took control of the Transportation and Infrastructure panel in 2001 and began planning for a rewrite of federal surface transportation laws, he listed the Knik Arm Bridge along with a bridge to Gravina Island as two of his top priorities for the state.
As part of the rewrite, Young included hundreds of millions of dollars in authorized funding for the bridges, which later would become known as the Bridges to Nowhere. Although those earmarks ultimately were eliminated by Congress in 2005, the state has received much of the funding in general transportation assistance and Hansen said the Knik Arm project is still being worked on.