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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Some in Fairbanks want Alaska railroad moved

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Alaska Assemblyman Hank Bartos wants to move the railroad out of downtown Fairbanks and expand Pioneer Park into a "winter wonderland" involving Ice Alaska, the railroad's unhappy tenant, the Daily News Miner reports.

Ice Alaska chairman Dick Brickley is pinning the nonprofit's future on the borough convincing the railroad to give up its riverfront land. Ice Alaska has sponsored the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks for more than 20 years.

"If we can't get a permanent home, this will be Ice Alaska's last year," Brickley said. "We are not going to go forward."

Bartos is presenting his ideas to the rest of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly at a committee meeting in the assembly chambers Jan. 21.

"What we want to do is have a greenbelt that will run along the north side of the Chena River from Peger Road to the old railroad depot," the assemblyman said.

Bartos is looking for support for a pair of resolutions he hopes will advance his goal. One resolution asks the state to spend $2 million on an environmental impact statement concerning a railroad realignment. Under the plan, about 20 miles of track in Fairbanks and North Pole would be moved south.

The railroad estimates the environmental impact statement's cost at closer to $10 million, maybe $20 million, according to corporate affairs vice president Wendy Lindskoog. She said the railroad's last impact statement, which looked at extending the railroad 80 miles to Delta Junction, cost $16 million.

The second resolution asks the Alaska Railroad Corp. to give the borough the land where Ice Alaska is located. Bartos said the borough would then provide land on the south side of town, where he hopes to move the railroad.

Railroad officials said they are willing to explore a realignment, but their corporation can't afford the cost, which Lindskoog estimated at more than $200 million.

"We've always been supportive of looking at that project," Lindskoog said. "We think there are benefits. We don't have the money. The borough doesn't have the money."

As for the land exchange, Lindskoog said the railroad is in negotiations with Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins.

"We've been dealing with Ice Alaska issues for many years," Lindskoog said. "We are in discussions with Mayor Hopkins regarding some options for that entity to either keep them on the current property or to consider other properties where they could be relocated."

But it's the railroad that should relocate, Bartos said, and he cited safety as the No. 1 reason. The borough has more than 50 railroad crossings, each one inviting the possibility for a collision, "especially in the wintertime because of the ice fog," Bartos said. The crossings also bottle up traffic and slow down the trains, he said.

"It stops traffic, and all of that idling traffic contributes to poor air quality," the assemblyman said.

Bartos thinks moving the railroad and expanding Pioneer Park could draw more winter visitors to Fairbanks. Moving the railroad would also free up land near downtown, spurring private development, he said.

"You know, if you don't have a vision and you don't have a starting point, you are not going to get any place," Bartos said. "We think it's an excellent use of federal stimulus funding. We think that the money would be there strictly because of the safety issues and because of our air quality issues."

Brickley said Ice Alaska lacks the money to move off railroad land or to meet an expected rent increase in April.

"We have done the analysis," he said. "It's not doable."

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