Biden, Obama helped keep 'Bridge to Nowhere' alive
By Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston
CNN Special Investigations Unit
DEWEY BEACH, Delaware (CNN) -- Although Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden routinely mocks his Republican counterpart, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for her onetime support of the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," Biden and his running mate voted to keep the project alive twice.
Both Biden and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama voted to kill a Senate amendment that would have diverted federal funding for the bridge to repair a Louisiana span badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina, Senate records show.
And both voted for the final transportation bill that included the $223 million earmark for the Alaska project.
An amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, would have stripped the money appropriated to connect the Alaskan coastal city of Ketchikan to its airport on sparsely populated Gravina Island and diverted the money to Louisiana.But Biden andObama and 80 of their colleagues rejected the measure, an amendment to a massive 2005 transportation bill that funded thousands of projects across the country.
"That is probably the most disturbing element of this and the campaigning on the Bridge to Nowhere," said Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, a taxpayer watchdog group. "Because, yes, they had a chance to vote specifically against the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska to redirect the money to people, to bridges and infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Katrina going in to New Orleans, and they chose not to."
The final version passed the Senate 93-1. Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who has made his opposition to congressional "pork-barrel" spending a cornerstone of his campaign, did not vote on either the Coburn amendment or the final bill.
Palin, whom McCain chose as his running mate in August, has regaled crowds at the Republican convention and on the campaign trail with her declaration of "Thanks, but no thanks" for the bridge. But her conversion came after she became Alaska's governor in 2006 and after the bridge became a national symbol of congressional waste.
The record shows that she supported the bridge as a gubernatorial candidate, and Democrats have seized on the flip-flop, perhaps no one with as much relish as Biden.
"I got also a bridge I got to sell you here, and guess what, it's in Alaska, and it goes nowhere," Biden mocked Palin on the campaign trail last week in Maumee, Ohio. And in Canton, Ohio, he tied it to McCain.
"If you look at it John McCain's answers for the economy, and we're in such desperate shape, is the ultimate bridge to nowhere. It's nowhere," Biden said. "It takes you nowhere."
But while the applause line appealed to the Democratic faithful, it could come back to bite the Delaware senator.
This year, Delaware has requested 116 congressional earmarks through Biden, its longtime senator, at a cost to taxpayers of $342 million. In an appearance on CNN's "American Morning" with anchor John Roberts, Biden said that he had been open about those requests and that they all can be justified.
"Everyone has seen them, and we have no Lawrence Welk Museums and have no bridges to nowhere in Delaware. It's all straight up," Biden said.
Among his requests: $1 million for renovation of an opera house in Wilmington, another million for the construction of a children's museum and thousands of dollars for a water park renovation in Lewes.
"I think opera patrons generally can afford to -- you can raise money for an opera house; you can refurbish things a lot of different ways," Allison said.
"To have federal taxpaying dollars -- which is coming from people all over the country; low-income, middle-income people, as well as the wealthy -- to go to pay for the renovation of something that is really a luxury for Wilmington ... There are far more vital projects that anyone could think of that needs money. You got health care. You got education. You got all other types of things. Instead, we are redirecting money to refurbish an opera house in Wilmington or to build a children's museum."
And Biden's request includes a bridge that even the head of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce says is not crucial at this juncture.
The Indian River Inlet Bridge is a vital link between two popular beachfront towns: Dewey and Bethany. Without it, the estimated 30,000 summer visitors would have to travel an additional 35 minutes to get to the towns.
"We need a new bridge, and we are fortunate to be at a place where it is finally going to happen," said Carol Everhart, the chief of the Chamber of Commerce.
The existing bridge has some erosion problems, and if it ever collapsed, Everhart said, it would cause an economic disaster in the community. But it's safe for now.
"The bridge, as it is, is perfectly safe," she said.
Still, Biden asked for $13 million to help shore up the existing bridge and begin construction of a new one. And that's what troubles the Sunlight Foundation's Allison.
"This bridge is not in any danger of collapse, and essentially what Sen. Biden is doing is saying, 'My state bridge gets the priority dollar even though it is not a priority project,' " Allison said.
He said the Department of Transportation, rather than U.S. senators, should be deciding which bridges get priority funding in the country. That way, the bridges in the U.S. that need immediate repair would be first in line for the dollars needed to do the work.
As he embarked on his presidential bid in 2007, Obama said he would no longer ask for earmark projects. McCain, who has been a longtime critic of the process, does not seek any for his home state of Arizona.
CNN asked Biden's campaign whether it could ask the senator about his earmark requests and his votes on the Bridge to Nowhere.In response, a staffer e-mailed, "You've interviewed Gov. Palin re: her completely made up position on the Bridge to Nowhere right?"