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Expanding Alaska rail lines: new routes add more than 100 miles, cost $1 billion-plus.

When the Alaska Railroad was first established in 1904 as a private rail line stretching just a few miles north of Seward, few people could imagine that it would someday play such an important role in the development of the Last Frontier. Today, the railroad carries more than 500,000 passengers annually, and more than 6 million tons of freight to destinations ranging from the Gulf of Alaska to villages within the Interior.

In 2010, the railroad will expand its reach even more. With roughly $43.1 million budgeted for capital projects, the Alaska Railroad Corp. continues to improve infrastructure while also expanding routes as a way to aid in the economic development goals of the state. These new routes, which include the Northern Rail Extension to Delta Junction and the Port MacKenzie Rail Extension, will not only help to stimulate business within those areas, but might also open the door to expanded routes in the future, including, perhaps, a railway to Canada.

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NORTHERN EXTENSION

On Jan. 5, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) granted the Alaska Railroad Corp. the authority to construct and operate a new rail line in the area between North Pole and Delta Junction. The project, which will involve approximately 80 miles of new rail line, will connect the existing Eielson Branch rail line at the Chena River Overflow Structure to a point near Delta Junction.

"This project is quite an undertaking." said Brian Lindamood, project manager, special projects, Alaska Railroad. "It will take place in four phases, and cost somewhere between $600 million and $800 million." The railroad is currently working on preparing final design and permit applications for regulatory agencies.

Phase one, the Tanana Access Project, will consist of building a bridge over the Tanana River near Salcha. The second phase will connect the railroad from Moose Creek near North Pole to the Salcha crossing, which is roughly 13 or 14 miles. Phase three will consist of rail construction from the Salcha crossing to the Donnelly Military Training Area, and phase four will connect Donnelly to Delta Junction, with the last two phases equaling approximately 60 miles.

"The bridge will take the longest time to build; the tracks to the bridge won't be as complicated," said Lindamood. "We have to start at the bridge in order to have it in place for the rest of the project."

According to Alaska Railroad Corp. Corporate Affairs Vice President Wendy Lindskoog, this stand-alone project will cost approximately $160 million. "The Alaska Railroad currently has $104 million of Department of Defense (DOD) money in the bank for this project, and we're hoping to get $12 million reappropriated from the Department's Fort Wainwright project for phase one," she explained. "We'll still need approximately $40 million, and we've got a capital request into the legislature in Juneau to see if the State will fund it."

Operated as part of the Alaska Railroad system, the new line would be available to the general public, commercial and military shippers. It also would provide access to large military training areas south of the Tanana River between Fairbanks and Delta Junction that are owned by the DOD. Access to this area, the Joint Pacific Area Range Complex (JPARC), is limited to ice roads during a short period of the year.

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"This new rail line will have direct and indirect benefits," said Lindamood. "The military has a world-class training facility, but they can't get to most of it. The military will get year-round access, which in turn, leads directly to the sustainability of the base long-term.

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"On a local level, we are designing the rail line so that it will be able to provide passenger service between Delta Junction and the Fairbanks area. The Richardson Highway is a two-lane road that takes an hour-and-a-half when the weather is good; quite a bit longer when it's bad. Because there is no redundancy in the transportation system between Delta Junction and Fairbanks, we would be able to provide an alternative method of transportation.

"Delta Junction is an attractive place to live, but it doesn't have a large medical community or many commercial facilities," he continued. "We can provide residents with a means to go to Fairbanks for more opportunities." One added benefit to residents of Salcha is that the bridge project requires stabilization work along the northern riverbank, resulting in flood control.

Temporary construction is expected to provide more than 100 jobs. In the long-term, two to five people will be employed to work in a small maintenance facility in Salcha. "As train traffic develops, there may be more positions," said Lindamood.

Because no one has previously constructed a bridge in this location and there are many unknowns on the supply side, the railroad has chosen to hire a construction management general contractor (CMGC) to participate in the design and permit process. "The CMGC can work with us both on engineering issues and supply chain issues, because getting things to Fairbanks could be a major problem," Lindamood explained. "On the permitting side, it helps to have the contractor at the permitting table so that there is no confusion over the interpretation of rules two years from now."

While a CMGC had not been selected at the time of this article, bidding was closed and Lindamood expected to have a company hired by the end of April, with permitting finished by the end of summer. Once phase one is under way, the railroad has two years to get funding in place for phase two, when they will make a decision on procurement for that part of the project.

PORT MACKENZIE

A second project that will aid in the economic development of a number of Alaska communities is the Port MacKenzie Rail Extension, a joint proposal of the Alaska Railroad and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Depending on the route involved, the project will involve 30 to 45 miles of new rail line extending from Port MacKenzie to the railroad's main line at some point between Meadow Lakes and north of Willow. The rail line would support the port's potential as a bulk resources export and import facility.

"This project is a good example of what the State owning the railroad can do," said Lindamood. "You have the Borough trying to develop a port facility, but to be successful, they need rail service. The Borough went to the State to get money for the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) process, which, if approved, will result in the railroad having a license to construct the rail line."

The draft EIS was recently published by the STB, and public comments closed May 10. "Hopefully in late summer or early fall, they will publish the final EIS, and the STB proper, a three-member board, will decide on what route to license for construction and operations," said Lindamood.

"The biggest challenge under consideration by the STB now is that there are a number of proposed routes: three in the northern section and two in the southern section," he continued. "Each of these will have completely different impacts on different communities. At the end of the day, we will build a railroad and someone will not be happy. It's very difficult to figure out how to weigh everyone's concerns.

"Many people support the project and want a port and rail line, but no one wants to be affected by trains running through their backyards," he added. "We have to figure out where we will build it, and then work with who is directly affected."

Another challenge facing the Port MacKenzie Rail Extension is funding. The Borough continues to seek additional development money while constructing a bulk commodities road loop at the port to facilitate shipping by truck in advance of rail construction. In addition to receiving $10 million from the State during the 2007 legislative session and $17.5 million during the 2008 legislative session, the Mat-Su Borough requested $57 million during the 2010 session to pursue design and construction of the rail embankment for the southern portion of the alignment. Final design and construction of the rail spur to Port MacKenzie is estimated to cost an additional $170 million to $240 million, depending on the route selected.

"Based on funding, realistically, trains could be running in two to three years," said Lindamood. "If we start construction in spring 2011, trains could be running by 2014."

CANADA CONNECTION

While the idea of an Alaska-Canada rail line was big news during Gov. Frank Murkowski's reign, the concept has since been put on the back burner. Estimated to cost between $11 billion and $13 billion back in 2007, the 1,100 mile to 1,200 mile track linking the two regions isn't currently an active project.

"While we're still planning to move forward, the first step is completing the rail line to Delta Junction, and once we're there, we can start moving east," explained Bruce Carr, director of strategic planning. "At that point in time, we'll engage British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, the federal government of Canada, First Nations and Alaska Natives in the project; it's a fairly large effort. But right now, our focus is on expanding rail lines to Delta Junction and to Port MacKenzie."
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Title Annotation:TRANSPORTATION: SPECIAL SECTION
Comment:Expanding Alaska rail lines: new routes add more than 100 miles, cost $1 billion-plus.(TRANSPORTATION: SPECIAL SECTION)
Author:Orr, Vanessa
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 2010
Words:1533
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