Alaska's "bridge to nowhere" would really be a bridge to sprawl - and that's why it'll be a crucial issue in the upcoming Senate re-election campaign of 84-year-old Ted Stevens.

Last week, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a 45-year-old Democrat, created an exploratory committee to run against the powerful six-term incumbent. Stevens is damaged by a passel of ethics problems, but he's also dogged by the fact that his "earmark" for the Knik Arm Bridge in Anchorage has become the poster child for Republican pork.

But there's more to the "bridge to nowhere" than pork. Whether or not the bridge is built is likely to fundamentally shape future growth patterns in Anchorage - as Begich well knows.

Anchorage is located on a peninsula in the midst a dramatically beautiful natural setting not unlike San Francisco or Seattle. Downtown Anchorage has skyscrapers from the '70s oil boom, as well as a connection to the Alaska Railroad often used by tourists. The rest of the city isn't much to look at. It's landlocked by a military installation and a national forest, and the city is running out of land. (Many residents commute an hour across the national forest from low-density suburbs that are technically still part of the combined city-county government.) The Anchorage 2020 Plan, championed by Begich, says all the right things about smart growth.

The Knik Arm Bridge would stretch from downtown Anchorage across the "Knik Arm" - a body of water that's part of the Cook Inlet - to the undeveloped Matanuska/Susitna Valley.

Almost four years ago, I sat in Begich's office high above downtown Anchorage and listened to him explain why the Knik Arm Bridge wasn't necessary. I was there as part of a visiting team of experts sent by the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, under a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, providing advice to the city about how to implement Anchorage 2020.

The city needed to turn its lack of land into an advantage, Begich said. He wanted to build housing on top of city-owned parking garages downtown. He was proud of the fact that Artspace was building artists' housing overlooking the water. He wanted to strengthen the Alaska Railroad connection between downtown and airport. Begich, the first mayor of Anchorage born in the city, clearly understood what the bridge would do. If it was built, Anchorage would only become more suburban. If it wasn't built, Anchorage might become a mini-Seattle.

Given the fact that Anchorage's Municipal Assembly was mostly Republican and much more conservative than Begich, I wasn't about to suggest in our report that the bridge not be built. So instead, what we said was that Anchorage 2020 needed to be implemented no matter what. Even if Stevens came through with the pork, the bridge wouldn't be built until 2015, maybe even 2020. The next year, the pork patrol came after Stevens and the Democrats regained control of the Senate.

It'll be interesting to see what kind of hay Begich makes out of Stevens' pork - and whether Begich as a senator might nudge Anchorage even more quickly toward a smart growth future.

- Bill Fulton