Murkowski’s Folly | Citizens Against Government Waste

Murkowski’s Folly

The WasteWatcher

The first rule of communications is getting the message right.

A March 11, 2014 op-ed by former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt appearing in the Los Angeles Times provided a unique glimpse into how messaging used by politicians can shift over time.  The editorial detailed the push in the 1990s by former Alaska Senators Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens to build a 38-mile road connecting King Cove with the neighboring town of Cold Bay.  Opposed by the Clinton Administration, the idea was to expedite the movement of seafood from the salmon canneries in King Cove to the airport in Cold Bay for distribution.

Twenty years later Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has taken up her father’s mantle, while subtly altering his message.  The justification for the road is no longer to boost the local economy, but rather an effort to ensure safety.  Similar to many small communities in Alaska, King Cove is not accessible by road, relying upon transportation via plane or boat.

In February of 2013, Sen. Murkowski threatened to block the nomination of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell unless the road was approved.  That attempt ultimately failed, and in December of 2013, Secretary Jewell formally rejected the project because it would run through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.  This “Road to Nowhere,” which has also drawn support from Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) would have cost federal taxpayers an estimated $75 million, or $79,113 per King Cove resident.

Undeterred, Sen. Murkowski is now pressuring the Obama Administration to overturn the decision.  Citing the Izembek road, she announced her opposition in February 2014 to Rhea Suh as the administration’s nominee for Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.  Sen. Murkowski also submitted a response to Secretary Babbitt’s op-ed on March 14, 2014.

Regardless of Sen. Murkowski’s altered pretext, it remains clear that commercial interests, not medical emergencies, are the primary driver of the project.  According to a February 24, 2013 Washington Post article, “Originally, both area residents and state officials viewed the road as a way to bolster the region's fishing industry...when King Cove passed its first resolution calling for its construction, it did not mention safety concerns and instead called for the road to ‘link together two communities having one of the state's premier fishing port/harbors.’”  The safety rationalization emerged only after it appeared unlikely that the Izembek road would receive federal funds.

In his op-ed, Secretary Babbitt concurred, claiming that Sen. Murkowski’s true motive is purely parochial:

But despite pledges and promises to the contrary, the real purpose for building the road is the same as it ever was: moving fish and workers to and from King Cove's canneries.  Today, Peter Pan Seafoods, wholly owned by the Japanese company Maruha Capital Investments Inc., is the largest cannery in King Cove.  A local assemblyman acknowledged in 2010 that the road would help Peter Pan better transport “fresh product.”  And the local borough has been clear about its ambition to ship “live crab directly from the Aleutians East Borough ‘hub’ port of Cold Bay to markets in China and other Asian countries.

The argument that the road will be safer than current methods of transportation from King Cove is also dubious.  The February 24, 2013 Post article quoted former Eastern Aleutian medical director for the Public Health Service Peter Mjos, who stated emphatically, “Combined with darkness, avalanche conditions, and ice-glazed roads, an attempt to travel the proposed road would be foolish beyond any reason, regardless the emergency or business.  Any attempt to maintain the road for travel in such conditions would clearly jeopardize life.”

Further, the federal government has already attempted to address the safety issue, providing $37.5 million in 1998 for a hovercraft and port terminals, a road to the hovercraft terminal, and an upgraded telemedicine facility.  This agreement, reached between the Clinton Administration and Alaska’s senators, was to exist in lieu of the Izembek road.  The medevacs performed by the hovercraft worked so well that the borough’s mayor called it a “lifesaving machine” in 2008.  After three years, the borough decided to use the hovercraft to provide transportation for workers at an alternate seafood plant.

The proposed road is so onerous that it has achieved the near-impossible in 2014: consensus between our political parties.  On March 14, 2014, a bipartisan group of former Interior Department officials supported Secretary Jewell’s rejection of the project.  In a letter to the Secretary, the group, consisting of assistant secretaries from the George W. Bush, Clinton, Ford, and Nixon administrations stated, “Put bluntly, the Izembek road was a terrible idea in 1998, it was a terrible idea when you heroically rejected it last December, and it still remains a terrible idea today.”

Any consumer can tell you that while communication strategies change over time, products usually remain the same.  Such is the case with the Murkowski family road, where the justification has shifted from the local economy to local safety.  It does not take a particularly discerning eye to deem the Izembek road unworthy of funding.