Alaska's infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" has a less famous but similarly wasteful cousin -- the "Boat to Nowhere," says Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington [CREW].
New details on this $14 million pork are now exhibit A in the case for the 112th Congress “to make a real commitment to earmark reform,” the watchdog group says in a statement.
"Sadly, the Boat to Nowhere is just one example on a long list of projects wasting taxpayer dollars," said Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director in a statement. "Too often, politicians from both parties rail against such ‘pork barrel’ spending, but for all the talk, they have done very little to fix the problem.”
The idea for the Boat to Nowhere was launched by the town of Seldovia, Alaska, in 2002 as a way to connect Seldovia and other towns to the regional hub of Homer in Alaska.
However, the town's mayor and local leaders opposed the project since the town was already served by a two passenger ferries, a state-operated ferry, several water taxis and air taxis.
But the Seldovia Native Association continued to push for it, altering the proposal to save the plan after studies showed the original project would lose $1 million a year. CREW says the Seldovia Native Association “stood to profit from jobs created by this project.”
The late Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) fought for the funding for the Boat to Nowhere, with support from other members of Alaska's congressional delegation.
The Native Association persuaded Sen. Stevens to include a $2 million earmark in the fiscal year 2004 budget to pay for a feasibility study. Rep. Don Young (R-AK) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also backed the project, and Rep. Young shepherded the earmark through the House, CREW says.
“Before the study was complete, Sen. Stevens secured $7 million in additional earmarks for the proposed ferry,” CREW says.
But three years later, when the feasibility study was finally released in 2007, it unexpectedly showed that the project would lose $1 million a year. Problem was, millions of dollars were already set aside for the project.
What to do?
The Native Association changed the Boat to Nowhere’s business model. The Boat to Nowhere instead became a summer tour boat, another avenue that the feasibility indicated could help it turn a profit -- of course, depending on the right circumstances.
Like no competitors.
But that important fact was ignored. Local, private tour boat operators, outraged by the idea of a government-financed competitor, called on state leaders to investigate, CREW says.
Several governmental organizations began probing the project, including the Alaska Department of Law and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, CREW’s research shows.
In 2009, the Interior Department’s Inspector General criticized the project as an example of the many problems facing the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Alaska. The IG cited the Bureau for its “inattention to expenditures” and management failure.
Despite much taxpayer expense on the IG’s report and protests from local leaders, in May 2010, the Boat to Nowhere, the Kachemak Voyager, opened for business, competing directly with two private tour operators that have been transporting passengers between the two communities for years.
“Neither of the tour boat operators operated at capacity, and the market had no need for an additional vessel,” CREW says. The Voyager has not released its finances publicly, and “its local competitors contend that the boat is not operating at a profit,” CREW adds.
Despite initially pushing for the pork for the Boat to Nowhere, Rep. Young withdrew his support for it earlier this year, and called on the Bureau of Indian Affairs to further investigate the project. So did Sen. Murkowski, who along with Rep. Young last month wrote to the Government Accountability Office, asking for an investigation into the Boat to Nowhere.
Sen. Murkowski’s reversal came on the heels of her defeat in the August Republican primary, “when voter concerns about government spending and waste were a major campaign issue,” CREW says. Rep. Young and Sen. Murkowski have not yet received a reply to their letter, CREW adds.