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2003 Construction roundup: from Southeast to Fairbanks, construction projects abound in the state. (Special Section: Building Alaska).

With warm weather and the summer construction season already ramping up to full force, Alaska communities around the state are poised for new roads and schools, airport improvements and commercial growth.

Alaska ended last year on a somewhat geophysically rocky note, with November's powerful quake damaging two main transportation arteries of the state. At the time, the state Department of Transportation suggested the damage caused by the 7.9 temblor would require roughly $20 million in construction improvements to the Richardson and Parks highways.

In an e-mail correspondence with Alaska Business Monthly, state economist Neal D. Fried suggested that Alaska will continue to see growth in construction, with much of the growth in the public sector.

"It appears that this will be another strong year for construction. The strengths are all in public-funded construction. Highways look very strong, along with the military. There is lots of public school and university construction in Fairbanks. The weakness will be in commercial and oil-related construction-there is little planned in the oil sector and there are no large retail or office building construction (projects) really slated for 2003. Residential appears to be another repeat of the previous year. It looks like construction employment will continue to grow some, keeping it on that long, steady growth path it has been on for over a decade."

Smaller projects around the state will mean considerable improvements and new construction on a local level this summer, with many long-running projects coming to fruition for small Alaska towns and villages.

Paired with other diverse economic stimuli, construction is often the bread and butter that works in the background to help smooth out rocky times for small communities. Such was the case in Ketchikan, in the years after the forestry industry slumped and the local pulp mill closed. New construction-often related to tourism development and highway projects-provided some shoulder protection for the local economy and continues to do so.

Nationally, the United States opened the new year with construction starts reportedly up 2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $504.4 billion, according to McCrawHill Construction Dodge, a clearinghouse for industry news and trends. The company reports nonresidential building in January up 4 percent nationally to 148.2 billion; residential building up 1 percent to $264.5 billion; and non-building construction up 3 percent to $91.7 billion. Such reporting places Alaska in the West division, where residential building increased by 5 percent and non-building construction by 3 percent.

TROUBLED WATERS

Though construction activity is equally rampant around the state, Southeast contractors are up and running early with a natural boost of more than a few dry, clear days already under their belts this spring. Builders welcome a summer of considerable activity and some seemingly construction-friendly weather to go with it.

For a few of those projects, however, the waters of negotiation have not been so calm.

Ketchikan saw itself embroiled this spring in a bid dispute after the city awarded contracts to a Juneau-based company for $250,000 worth of piling maintenance and $600,000 to construct a downtown mooring dolphin and fenders. Local contractors protested the bids and the city then overturned the contract award to Juneau-based Bicknell Inc. and instead accepted the bids of the local firms, Pool Engineering and Dawson Construction. In a subsequent move, Bicknell contested the city's actions and, in late March, the matter was the topic for executive session.

Still, in Southeast, Ketchikan's borough government and school board are ramping up for the construction of a new elementary school and renovation of a longtime educational flagship, Schoenbar Middle School. Both projects are high profile on the community's radar and are long overdue in the minds of many residents. Still, getting to "Yes" has not been without more than a few bumps in the road.

Though there has been some debate about delaying the renovation project until the separate elementary school construction is complete, the borough is pushing to complete the project quickly. The borough has sold bonds to fund the refurbishment and issued notice to the school board this spring that it hoped to start construction in June and finish by August 2004.

The project's original $5 million renovation later blossomed to more than $9 million for a complete makeover that would rebuild some 90 percent of the existing 38-year-old building, install a sloped roof, add new rooms and kitchen/lunchroom facilities and additionally meet Americans with Disability Act requirements.

Meanwhile, over the past fall and winter, the school board and borough were involved in securing the property for the separate, new elementary school, anticipated to be located south of the city proper along South Tongass Highway.

Also on the horizon this year for that neck of the woods, is a three-phase massive reconstruction and widening of South Tongass Highway. Construction of the first phase of the project is intended to commence this year, with completion of the entire project stretching out past 2006. The project would resurface the highway, straighten many of the curves along the seaside route, and widen the existing 1-foot shoulders to 5-foot paved shoulders. The project also includes extending the island's popular walking/bicycle trail southward several miles, past Alaska Native cultural and popular tourism destination Saxman Village to Mountain Point.

Also in the works, the University of Alaska Southeast--Ketchikan campus--is undergoing remodeling of its waterfront Robertson/Hamilton building, where debate has also colored the road to construction. The renovation design includes new windows on a street-facing wall that has been home for 30-plus years to a vibrant and high-profile mural. The renovation has drawn the attention of the local historic district and area merchant's association, which expressed concern the public was not notified of the impending removal of the massive mural.

Meanwhile, across the waters to Prince of Wales Island, residents in the community of Craig are working with city planners to find a better location for a new helipad other than that community's Cemetery Island. The U.S. Coast Guard condemned the existing 30-year-old helipad and offered to build a new one for approximately $1 million. The pad is used infrequently for emergency medical transports and only when the Klawock airport is obscured by bad weather. After assessing three sites, the USCG chose the tidelands at Cemetery Island, which the local planning commission conditionally approved. Still, local residents hope to determine an alternative site for the new construction.

While these smaller projects all have quality-of-life impact on the lives of local Alaskans, there is no project larger in scope for southern Southeast than the anticipated $190 million Ketchikan-to-Gravina bridge. The issue of airport access for the community has been a point of debate for decades. Still, only in recent years has the issue of a bridge to replace current ferry service to the international airport seemingly come to fruition. That said, the project is not without substantial debate.

The Ketchikan-to-Gravina bridge issue entered the new year with the Ketchikan Economic Development Authority in December approving a resolution to support an alternative different than that preferred by the state Department of Transportation. The state had selected a two-bridge option linking Revillagigedo Island with Pennock Island via a 120-foot bridge, then with a 200-foot-high bridge to Gravina Island and the airport. The bridge would be high enough to allow cruise ships to pass beneath. The KEDA's preference, however, would still support a two-bridge option, but flipping the clearances, essentially rerouting the ship traffic.

WAR GAMES

At the early stages of war in Iraq this spring, President George W. Bush indicated his intent to help states and cities--and the nation as a whole--fund increased security infrastructure. "Every dollar we spend must serve the interests of our nation ... to help keep the peace," the president announced in March. His supplemental budgetary request to Congress was in addition to other security-related spending already in the works, including the current construction of the Alaska-based portion of a national missile defense system.

A majority percentage of the $250 million allocated for construction of the ground-based Midcourse Missile Defense System at Fort Greely (located about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks) is going to local companies, with 33 of the project subcontractors Alaskan-owned. Already well in the works, the project took on added significance in recent months with President Bush's strengthened concentration on national security. Construction contractor Fluor Alaska Inc. broke ground on the project last summer and has indicated that the administration's new emphasis for an operational missile defense system by 2004 leaves no wiggle room in the construction schedule. With the new schedule, much of that project's construction will occur this year.

The nation's military has long been a key source of construction in Alaska and this year marks even more evidence of that relationship. Long a staple for the Alaska economy--with the state's strategic geographic position and open spaces conducive to warfare training--the military continues to build its infrastructure and, with that, the Alaska economy.

Spring news and legislative reports indicated the U.S. Army's plans to bring more than 2,000 additional personnel and more than $1 billion in construction to the state over the next several years as support for a new, mobile Stryker brigade to be stationed in Alaska--as well as continued support of existing Army units. Headquartered at Fort Wainwright, and with additional impact at Fort Richardson, some personnel of the Stryker unit may start arriving this year, military officials told legislators in March. This deployment will see additional military housing starts in those areas, as well as construction of additional support facilities. There has been some talk that the brigade may even impact expansion of the Port of Anchorage, allowing for seaborne deployments of the Stryker brigade equipment. The Stryker brigade concept allows for immediate military resources with roll-on/roll-off, mobile capabilities.

TRAINS AND PLANES

Specifically reeling from the requirements of increased security post-Sept, 11,2001, air travelers have witnessed construction at countless airports across the country. And in Alaska, the picture is much the same. In some cases, the upgrades are a matter of course, improving and renovating existing services on a normal schedule and simply to better serve the traveling public. With other projects, the construction is directly tied to new security requirements.

For Alaska's southernmost major airport, renovations continue at the Ketchikan International Airport, where McGraw Construction of Sitka was contracted in October to modernize the bathrooms, replace the baggage line, relocate the snack bar and lounge, and expand the second floor of the structure. In a dramatic change from the previous layout, the second floor of the structure is now separated off as a larger, secure area for departing ticketed passengers and new arrivals.

For the state's largest airport--Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport--federal government and airport officials announced $51.3 million in federal funds over the next several years were granted. The project is among those targeted nationwide to strengthen the capacity of the commercial air system. The funds will upgrade the airport's primary runway and taxiways to allow it to serve the larger cargo planes coming online and maintain its status as a cargo giant in the global transportation infrastructure.

The construction will reduce delays due to congestion, alleviate head-to-head taxiing, expedite arrivals and departures, enhance ground and air traffic flow efficiency, maintain and enhance aircraft safety, and increase ground operation flexibility, according to an announcement from Alaska Sen. Ted Steven's office.

"This is great news for Alaska's transportation infrastructure," Stevens said of the allocation. "These funds will allow for the necessary construction and upgrades for our Anchorage airport so that they will be able to receive the new large cargo planes expected to be in use by 2007. I am hopeful we will be able to obtain additional funds for future upgrades in the passenger terminals."

Mort Plumb, airport director, details the airport's construction future and the increased role of intermodal transportation options for Alaska shippers and travelers from new and anticipated construction.

"... the airport is constructing the new north-south taxiway Y, and has programmed site development and roads and utilities improvements to assist the private sector in making its investments pencil out," Plumb says. "A rail station connected by the new pedestrian tunnel to the new airport terminal grand hall will provide visitors and residents an alternative mode of transportation that is fun and different. Intermodal shipments of cargo with the lines operating at the Port of Anchorage offer future opportunities to bring freight in by sea and ship part of the way by air. The Knik bridge and Fire Island causeway, supported by a Fire Island road access tunnel under the north-south runway, are additional infrastructure that will induce intermodal transportation activity as we outgrow current facilities over time."

Meanwhile, airport officials recently sounded optimistic that construction on the airport's $320 million Concourse C is still in line for completion by spring of next year. That despite complications involving the simultaneous installation of luggage-screening machines as part of new security requirements.

In other transportation infrastructure news, the Alaska Railroad Corp. contracted in February with Wilder Construction to begin building of a second bridge over Campbell Creek, thereby completing the South Anchorage double-track project. The intent is to alleviate congestion and strengthen the railroad's ability to handle increased future growth. Wilder contracted at $11.8 million for the South Anchorage double-track project, which started in fall 2001 and is set to conclude early this summer. This is among many improvement projects by the Alaska Railroad.

As for other infrastructure-related projects, transportation improvements are ongoing around the state as part of each regional state transportation plan, which includes new bridges and roads and, in the case of Southeast, new ferry routes--all infusing the state in construction dollars.

GENERAL CONTRACTS

Other general construction is occurring in pockets throughout the 49th state, some concluding and some just starting up.

* In the quality-of-life arena, Juneau ended winter on a high note, with construction of the first public-access sports facility in some 30 years complete in February. The Treadwell Ice Arena measured in at 31,900 square feet, cost $3.5 million and was designed by Juneau-based Wayne Jensen of architectural firm Jensen, Yorba, Lott Inc. and built by Coogan Construction. Built on pilings, the structure includes an Olympic-sized hockey rink and is located in Savikko Park in Douglas.

Residents of Anchorage will see continued local roadway improvements with a twist--roundabouts. The $12.7 million construction portion of the Dowling Road improvement project started last year, with a 2004 deadline and much of the project's construction occurring this season. That effort--stretching from the intersection at Lake Otis Parkway and Dowling and extending to Campbell Creek Bridge--calls for widening of the road to four lanes and inclusion of two traffic roundabouts.

* In other road improvements, Wilder Construction continues with its $16.7 million reconstruction of the south region of C Street in Anchorage between Dimond Boulevard and Potter Drive this year, with that project due for completion by fall. The contractor also won the bid for paving the runway at Iliamna Airport, an $11 million project set for completion this fall, and has other construction projects ongoing around the region, as well.

* Construction costs associated with the Donlin Creek gold project, located about 280 miles west of Anchorage, could range from $600 million to $1 billion, based on how that project proceeds. Transitioning the project from one of exploration nature to actual development as among the world's largest gold operations is complicated. A prefeasibility engineering study is reportedly under way and set for completion by mid-summer. Donlin Creek would operate as an open-pit mine and is owned by partners NovaGold Resources Inc. and Placer Dome U.S.

* The U.S. Forest Service and Federal Highway Administration received $350,000 in federal dollars to study heliport options in Juneau. Meanwhile, the city has also set aside $500,000 in cruise ship passenger fees to help ease the noise related to helicopter flights that has city residents up in arms. An environmental study will provide the details regarding new heliport options.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Associated Press reports that construction industry leaders this spring selected Fairbanks as the jumping-off site for a new marketing program to attract workers to the construction-related trades- for careers as electricians, architects and builders. The campaign included radio and television ads and cost the Construction Industry Progress Fund $70,000. The fund, started by industry workers and management, led the campaign in conjunction with the Associated General Contractors of Alaska and hoped to see the effort go statewide to offset the attrition of older, skilled workers as they retire.
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Author:Bonham, Nicole A.
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:May 1, 2003
Words:2757
Previous Article:Going on 30: Neeser Construction Inc. This design/build company is making its mark in the state. (Special Section: Building Alaska).
Next Article:May Alaska trends.
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