Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), a staunch infrastructure advocate and the longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives, died on March 18 while traveling back to his home state, his office said in a statement. He was 88.
He was re-elected in 2020 to his 25th term in the House and also was running for re-election this year.
Young, who worked in construction—among other fields—in his earlier years, was best-known to industry officials as a long-time senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which he chaired from 2001 to 2007 and on which he served at the time of his death. At his death, Young was the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, which he had chaired from 1995 to 2001.
Young's pro-infrastructure House record dated from 1973, his first year in the chamber, when he pushed for the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline project.
In his final months, he was one of only 13 House Republicans to vote for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, enacted last Nov. 15. On March 9, he voted for the $1.5-trillion omnibus spending package, which included significant construction funding.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a Twitter post said of Young, “A true character, he shaped US infrastructure in many ways, and will be deeply missed.”
President Joe Biden, in a March 19 statement, called Young, "Tough. Loyal. A consensus builder."
“Don was a force of nature—an historic and unique figure in a body of standouts,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s current chairman, said in a statement,
Rep. Sam Graves (Mo.), ranking committee GOP member, said in a statement, “There was no greater supporter of infrastructure among congressional Republicans, and over the years, he led the way in passing many pieces of legislation" that boosted U.S. infrastructure.
"Don Young was a true champion for infrastructure investments because he experienced, first hand, the power of those investments to unleash economic growth, better connect distant communities and improve quality of life," said Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives at AGC of America.
Linda Bauer Darr, American Council of Engineering Companies CEO said of Young on Twitter, “Few were as committed to serving the interests of their constituents in Congress. His leadership and support for engineering infrastructure will be missed.”
Advocate for Congressional Earmarks
In chairing the transportation committee, Young's most notable achievement came in 2005, when he was the prime House architect of a six-year surface transportation measure, titled the Safe, Affordable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act—a Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU. The “Lu” refers to Young’s then-wife, Lu.
DeFazio said that SAFETEA-LU “was a strong bipartisan bill, with good policy and needed investment in infrastructure.” The legislation authorized $286 billion for highways, transit and highway safety programs, a 38% increase over the previous law, The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century.
Young also was an unabashed advocate and practitioner of “earmarking” funds in legislation for specific projects in his home state. Supporters of earmarks viewed the provisions as ways to build support for legislative proposals.
Biden said, “Don’s legacy lives on in the infrastructure projects he delighted in steering across Alaska…”
SAFETEA-LU overflowed with earmarks. An ENR story at the time said that “Sealing the deal [for SAFETEA-LU’s passage] were hundreds of earmarked projects requested by hundreds of legislators.”
According to budget watchdog organization Taxpayers for Common Sense, Alaska had 119 earmarks, totaling $941 million, in SAFETEA-LU.
The largest of the Alaska items were $181 million for the Knik Arm Bridge near Anchorage and $175 million for a bridge to link Ketchikan and thinly populated Gravina Island. The earmarks presumably had Young's support.
The Ketchikan-Gravina project gained notoriety when critics dubbed it the “Bridge to Nowhere.” The nickname also has been applied to the Knik Arm Bridge.
[View ENR 11/28/2005 story transportation funding, earmarks here.]
The criticism had an impact. The state of Alaska dropped the Ketchikan-Gravina Island project in 2007. The Knik Arm Bridge also was not built.
In 2011, after several Congress put an “earmark moratorium” into place. But last year, House Democrats brought them back, this time with new funding caps, disclosure mandates and other requirements
Earmarks were included in the infrastructure law, and in the $1.5-trillion omnibus spending bill that was enacted on March 15. Young issued a press release on March 10 on the omnibus, saying he was “proud to have secured ten earmarks for specific projects in Alaska.” They included measures related to a wastewater treatment plan, a flood diversion project and a fire station.
He said that “the decade-long ban on ‘earmarks’ served only to shift Congress’ rightful power to appropriate money to the Executive Branch while denying needed funds to local organizations.”
Young was born in Meridian, Calif., on June 9, 1933, and later moved to Alaska, where besides working in construction, he also "tried his hand at commercial fishing, trapping and the search for gold," according to a biographical sketch on his web page.
He later taught fifth grade and was captain of a tug and barge operation, delivering supplies to Yukon River villages.
In 1964 he was elected mayor of Fort Yukon, served in the Alaska State House of Representatives from 1966 to 1970, and then was elected to the state senate.
Young also faced ethics-related allegations.
In 2014, the House Ethics Committee, after an investigation, found that Young violated House Rules and the Ethics in Government Act for "improperly using campaign funds for personal purposes and ... improperly accepting impermissible gifts." It directed him to repay $59 million to his campaign and the donors of the gifts.
The committee also issued Young a "letter of reproval."
According to published reports, Young issued a statement saying the actions were "oversights" and apologized.
He also faced a US Justice Dept. criminal investigation related to an earmark for a highway project, but in 2010 he was notified he would not be prosecuted, published reports said.