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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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