LEE COUNTY, Fla. -- Coconut Road near Fort Myers looks like any other concrete ribbon near housing developments, golf courses and shopping malls in this state's booming southwest. But like another fragrant slab of recent pork, the $223 million "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska, Coconut Road leads to somewhere darkly fascinating. It runs straight into Washington's earmark culture of waste, corruption and anticonstitutional deviousness.
Today the road ends at a chain-link fence, beyond which flows the river of traffic on Interstate 75. The earmark that would have built an interchange to connect Coconut Road to I-75 was, like the bridge, smudged with the fingerprints of Alaska's Republican Rep. Don Young, who in 2005 was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. But this story involves more than one political vulgarian's wretched excesses. It also illustrates how Republicans earned their most recent and coming drubbings.
On July 29, 2005, the House and Senate passed legislation granting Lee County's request for $10 million for "widening and improvements for I-75" to facilitate evacuations during hurricanes. But on Feb. 19, 2005, Young had been in Bonita Springs near Fort Myers, collecting $40,000 in campaign funds. The contributors included developer Daniel Aronoff, a prolific supporter of Republicans and owner of about 4,000 acres along Coconut Road. The value of that land would be enhanced if Coconut Road were connected to I-75 by an interchange that would be adjacent to 1,200 of Aronoff's acres.
When the legislation reached the president on Aug. 10, 2005, the language about widening I-75 had been mysteriously deleted and replaced by "Coconut Rd. interchange I-75/ Lee County." So $10 million was to be spent for a project neither the House nor the Senate voted for, that Lee County did not want, and that someone unknown wrote into the legislation. But the Constitution says: "Every bill ... shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate" before it becomes law.
Young at first said the local congressman, Connie Mack, asked for the change. Mack denied that. In January 2006, Young, who subsequently changed his tune, warned Lee County that it could not spend the $10 million for the widening project it requested. Young says local residents requested the interchange project instead. But many residents, not including the developers who are Young's benefactors, oppose it for environmental and traffic reasons.