Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Former Anchorage mayor promotes railroad line to Port MacKenzie

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For months now, former Anchorage, Alaska, Mayor Rick Mystrom has been pushing a huge railroad project -- in the Mat-Su, the Anchorage Daily News reports. It's one of the projects the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is banking on to make its 11-year-old Port MacKenzie viable.

The effort has escalated tensions between the Mat-Su and Anchorage ports, though both sides insist they aren't competitors for most goods.

"I wouldn't do it unless I thought it was going to be good for Anchorage," Mystrom said. "The business and the jobs that it's going to create in Anchorage are going to be huge."

Just 2.5 miles across Knik Arm from Anchorage, Port MacKenzie includes a deep-water dock, a barge dock and a fancy ferry terminal building completed a few years back for a ferry that hasn't yet arrived. The M/V Susitna was christened June 11 in Ketchikan, where it was built. It still needs to be outfitted and undergo sea trials.

As it stands, the port doesn't get much ship traffic. So far this year, one ship has docked there -- a test earlier this month to see if a supersized ship could be loaded with coal. It could. Borough officials crowed that the ship, the biggest ever to dock in Upper Cook Inlet, was too big for the Port of Anchorage.

Mat-Su's port would get a dramatic boost if a rail line were built connecting it with the main line of the Alaska Railroad farther north in a spot yet to be selected, Mystrom told a business group in Anchorage. The state, with billions in savings, needs to invest in new transportation infrastructure to develop Alaska's abundance of natural resources and create jobs, Mystrom said.

"The last big infrastructure project the state did was the Parks Highway, and it was finished in 1974," he told the Anchorage Building Owners & Managers Association at its monthly meeting.

The Port Mac rail extension is poised to be the next big thing, he said. Coal, limestone, lead, zinc, copper and other minerals could be mined and then hauled by rail to Port MacKenzie, where it would be loaded on ships. That would cut 147 miles off the existing rail route to the port in Seward, he said.

It's not just a shorter route -- the 30- to 40-mile extension is virtually downhill and more efficient for the trains, borough officials say. And Mystrom said that neither Anchorage nor Seward could offer the staging area of Port MacKenzie -- 14 square miles of industrially zoned land, with no homes on it.

The Port of Anchorage, which is in the midst of its own huge expansion, is the primary Alaska port for consumer goods coming in on container ships. Almost everything residents eat, wear or drive comes through it. Mat-Su wants to become a regional port for mineral exports and also is interested in fuel storage and in receiving materials such as the steel for the state's long-dreamed about natural gas pipeline, Mystrom said.

But the Port of Anchorage wants the steel pipe to come its way, and it already has huge fuel tanks.

Mystrom, a part-time Valley resident with a home on Finger Lake and a former advertising executive, wrapped up his role as a paid promoter of the rail project in April. He said he continues to talk it up because he believes in the merits. He made $85,000 for six months work with the borough.

The state this year put $35 million toward the rail expansion, expected to cost up to $250 million when it's all complete. Gov. Sean Parnell recently vetoed another $22 million that had been approved by the Legislature but says he supports the expansion.

The project now is before a federal entity called the Surface Transportation Board. The Alaska Railroad has applied to the board for a license to build the rail line. A draft environmental impact statement analyzed the need as well as three possible routes connecting to the main line near Willow, Houston or east of Big Lake.

Last month in written comments to the board, Anchorage Port Director Bill Sheffield challenged some of the assertions put forth by backers of the rail project and raised concerns about Port MacKenzie as a year-round port. In one example, the backers contended it would be cheaper to ship bulk materials like wood chips, gravel or cement by rail to Port MacKenzie than to Anchorage and that Anchorage doesn't have space to store or handle big quantities.

Sheffield, the former head of the Alaska Railroad, said that was a "significant misrepresentation." He said there likely wouldn't be enough business at Port MacKenzie to justify permanent rail crews, so locomotives and rail cars would have to be serviced in Anchorage or Fairbanks. And since 2003, his port has added 60 acres of land by filling in Knik Arm and a mile of rail. It's already received drill pipe headed to the North Slope.

When Mat-Su officials saw his six-page letter on file with the federal government, they were livid.

"I wish to express my deep concern over Port Director Bill Sheffield's recent wayward actions toward the Port MacKenzie Rail Extension," Colberg wrote to Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan.

Sullivan assured Mat-Su officials he supported the rail project. Still, a growing shoal near Port MacKenzie is causing problems for Anchorage-bound ships and he wants Mat-Su's help in finding a solution.

Mystrom said he only recently learned that Sheffield had concerns about the rail project.

"Anchorage is the most important port in Alaska and always will be," he said. But the Mat-Su rail project, he said, could boost the whole region.

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