Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 8:16 PM on Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Scaled-back plan issued for Port of Anchorage expansion

By Sean Manget
Morris News Service - Alaska

Port of Anchorage Director Bill Sheffield unveiled a plan May 6 for completing a scaled-back version of the massive port expansion project, which has drawn criticism for glitches in the construction and a budget that swelled to $1 billion.

The tentative concept, presented by Sheffield, Port Engineer Todd Cowles and Anchorage City Manager George Vakalis to a municipal assembly port committee would require $397 million in addition to the $265 that has been spent to date, and would involve completing the northern expansions of the port and refurbishing the existing older dock.

In contrast, completing the full expansion as planned would require $922 million, in addition to the $265 million that was already spent, according to Lindsey Whitt, the port's director of marketing.

Altogether, 65 acres of marine industrial property would be added under the limited plan, versus the 135 acres that would be added under the full expansion.

A project to remove damaged sheet piles on part of the project that has been constructed, which were discovered in 2010, is planned for this summer, Sheffield said. The port said the replacement will cost $9 million. Those funds are available now, Sheffield said.

In a related development, Sheffield and Vakalis said the port and municipality are taking steps to be involved in decisions involving the construction.

The major ocean carriers which serve the Port of Anchorage, Horizon Lines and Totem Ocean Trailer Express, appear to have mixed opinions on the expansion.

Although it is expensive, Horizon supports the full expansion, Horizon Maintenance Manager Tony Davenport told the assembly committee, because it would allow the company to install larger cranes at a new location on the dock that would serve bigger ships.

The limited expansion would leave Horizon at its current location at the older dock.

Totem does not use cranes in its operation. It has a system where trailers are driven off its ship. Totem is concerned with added costs of moving freight from a new location, said George Lowery, its Alaska director.

However, Totem is most concerned about silting in the area near the port that is causing difficulties in operating its vessels, he said.

The full expansion option is expected to relieve problems with silting because it would create a continuous dock face that would speed the current, reducing silting.

In contrast, the limited option under study would leave the old dock in place and a space in the face of the dock, which would cause an interruption in the current and could exacerbate silting.

Port spokeswoman Emily Cotter said the new plan was "very, very tentative."

The full expansion, with its budget running at $1 billion, has been plagued with problems.

If the scaled-back version is pursued, construction would likely begin in 2013 and end in 2016 with the northern area.

With the full expansion, two barge berths and three ship berths would be added, along with the possibility of a cruise ship berth.

The limited option, in contrast, would involve the rehabilitation of existing deteriorating dock facilities, where the full expansion would see the outright replacement of the facilities. The dock is subject to corrosion because the protective casing around the steel pilings has deteriorated, officials have said. The rehabilitation under the scaled-back plan would take 15 years.

The limited plan would involve installing only two essential facilities, where the full plan would have three. Essential facilities are designed to withstand a major seismic event.

Under the scaled back plan, a wet barge berth would still be completed on the north side, which, unlike the dry barge berth, which would also be completed, would not sit on the bottom when the tide is low.

The wet barge berth, along with a ship berth intended for carrier ships, tankers and others, would be completed under the limited plan.

Under the full expansion plan, another structure designed to withstand a major earthquake would be constructed on the south side of the port.

According to materials the port put together, the full expansion meets predetermined seismic standards, where the overall seismic performance of the scaled-back version is unknown. In other words, there's no guarantee the rebuilt old dock would withstand a 1964-type earthquake.

Both plans would still see the completion of a rail extension and the realignment of a haul road on the eastern side of the port.

There are $20 million in state funds appropriated to the project in the fiscal year 2012 capital budget now pending in the Legislature.

Officials had hoped to acquire the funding needed to begin construction of the port expansion's south end in 2012, but have been unable to acquire the money.

To secure more state funding, port officials are hitting the road, Sheffield said, running an outreach effort to stress the need for the expansion.

And the port is seeking bonds as well as federal money for the future phases of construction, Whitt said.

Sheffield said the project is "too important to fail," and that nearly 550,000 people depend on goods delivered through the Port of Anchorage.

Even if the smaller-scale plan is ultimately pursued, Sheffield said the port will seek full funding for a phase of the project up front before construction of that phase can commence.

In an interview after the meeting, Sheffield said he wasn't sure exactly how much he seek from the state, nor whether it would come in the form of bonding or cash. He said it won't cover the entire cost, but "it's going to be a lot," he said.

Even if officials opt to build just the scaled-back version, the full expansion could be constructed later on, Sheffield said.

The scaled-back plan wouldn't see construction of permanent new facilities for the two ocean carriers, which bring goods from the Port of Tacoma.

Davenport said Horizon supports the full extension. While the full expansion's price tag may be high, the cost of replacing the existing pilings after a catastrophic earthquake would be higher, he said.

In an interview after the end of the hearing, Sheffield stressed the importance of the project.

"Look, this port serves the state of Alaska. People have got to understand that. If this port were shut down for two weeks ... you wouldn't have food on the table anywhere in Alaska ... this port (expansion) has to be completed," he said.

Journal of Commerce reporter Tim Bradner contributed to this story.

Sean Manget can be reached at sean.manget@alaskajournal.com.

Tim Bradner can be reached at