The Port to Nowhere

By Kellyn Brown

It would be difficult to find a better example of wasted stimulus dollars than those already spent to upgrade the Whitetail Port of Entry northeast of Scobey. Many of our readers have aptly compared it to the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” Let’s take a look at the two projects, shall we, and pore over evidence of their uselessness.

The Bridge to Nowhere: The Gravina Island Bridge – its actual name – would have connected Ketchikan, Alaska, population of about 9,000, to the Gravina Island, which is home to about 50 people and an airport.

The Port to Nowhere: The Whitetail port is in Daniels County, which has a population of fewer than 2,000. The actual border post sees just five travelers on a busy day. So few, in fact, that Canada chose to close its side of the port – making it a one-way crossing.

The Bridge to Nowhere: The proposed price tag for the bridge, which would have been almost as long as the Golden Gate and higher than the Brooklyn Bridge, was a whopping $398 million, with about $320 million footed by federal tax dollars.

The Port to Nowhere: The cost to taxpayers, by way of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to renovate the Whitetail crossing would be $8.5 million. There are two other crossings just 17 and 34 miles away.

The Bridge to Nowhere: Members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation, Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens, adamantly defended the earmark inserted in the 2006 National Appropriations Bill. And Stevens even threatened to quit Congress if funds were withheld (he never did). Following unrelated ethics charges, Stevens, the seventh longest-serving senator in history, lost his reelection bid in 2008. Young still serves in the House.

The Port to Nowhere: Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester originally took credit for securing stimulus dollars for border projects in the state. But after the Associated Press published an investigation into dubious port funding and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano denied anyone influenced her decision to fund the projects, the two Democrats backpedaled. Tester has since asked for more transparency on proposed border upgrades.

The Bridge to Nowhere: Congress eventually stripped the specific earmark from the omnibus spending bill that would have required funding the bridge, but still sent the same amount of federal money to Alaska that year. And $26 million of those dollars were spent on building the Gravina Island Highway, which would have been linked up to the scrapped bridge, but instead is essentially a dead-end road that is often referred to as “The Road to Nowhere.” Its construction became fodder for critics of 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who as governor of Alaska allowed the road to be completed.

The Port to Nowhere: Despite the controversy, upgrades at several Montana border crossings, including those at the lonely Whitetail post, moved forward. About $1.3 million had already been spent or received at Whitetail, when Canada announced that it would close its side of the crossing because it was “underused.” Tester asked that the project be halted temporarily. Department of Homeland Security officials agreed and now plan to discuss the proposed upgrades with residents in the area.

What’s more troubling is that this border station, and others like it, was already thoroughly panned almost a year ago. Yet it still received stimulus money after Homeland Security said it would scrutinize how checkpoints are being funded.

If Canada hadn’t closed its side of the Whitetail crossing, the million-dollar upgrade on the Montana side would probably have escaped more public scrutiny and be completed as planned. Now, the federal government has the option of wasting $1.3 million, or $8.5 million on this one-way port. How about closing it altogether?

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