Anchorage kicks off new port work; $300M needed to finish


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A diver attempts to examine corroded pilings at the Port of Anchorage on Aug. 13. A scaled-down version of the project will still need about $300 million to complete. Construction was stopped in 2010 after damage was found to sheet pile intended to be the dock face.

Photo/Michael Dinneen/For the Journal

The Municipality of Anchorage officially hit the reset button on its port project Aug. 18 with the kickoff of a weeklong design work session.

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan told a group of nearly 50 stakeholders gathered at the Port of Anchorage offices that he is confident in their ability to jumpstart the stalled construction project.

“We’re certainly at a very important stage in moving the project forward,” Sullivan said. “It’s been, as we all know, a challenging last four to five years watching a project that’s spent a significant amount of money not be viable and having to reverse course — not only undoing construction, as we know will have to happen in the future, but going a new direction in design and construction.”

More than $300 million of public money has been spent on the project since its inception in 2003, and the city has little more than a barge dock to show for it. Work at the port has been virtually stagnant since 2010 after major construction problems were discovered.

Sullivan said completing the original sheet pile design, which included relocating the port’s main users, Totem Ocean Trailer Express, or TOTE, and Horizon Lines, to a new north dock, would have cost an additional $600 million or more. The scaled-back, pile-supported concepts drafted by project manager CH2M Hill that the city supports would likely cost less than $400 million, he said.

The city has about $130 million in reserve for future work.

Securing funding for the project will be the biggest challenge it faces, Sullivan said. Getting the Port of Anchorage construction project “back on track” before he leaves office has been his top priority and will continue to be, he said.

Sullivan is running for lieutenant governor in the November election.

“I’m going to continue to be a strong advocate for this project whether I’m in the private sector or still in the public sector,” he said.

“Other than a gas pipeline, I’m not sure there is a more important project that the state will be considering in the next decade.”

Other projects, which could include a prospective gasline, will mean more activity at the port, he said. Roughly 85 percent of goods entering Alaska go through the Port of Anchorage.

Opened for business in 1961 and having survived the 1964 earthquake, the current port infrastructure is living on borrowed time. Port officials spent $1.3 million in 2013 to maintain the corroding dock piling, according to the port’s financial statements.

Retired Port Director Rich Wilson has said fixing the pilings is an annual expense that will continue until they are replaced.

Port operators, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, port staff and CH2M Hill representatives were involved in the work session known as a charrette, which was closed to the public because no elected officials participated, according to municipal spokeswoman Lindsey Whitt.

The meeting is to determine technical criteria for a new port design and the public’s interests were represented in the charrette by Municipal Manager George Vakalis, who has been the lead on the port work during his administration, Sullivan said.

Vakalis said the municipal Enterprise Oversight Committee, which watches over port operations and is made up of Anchorage Assembly members not allowed in the charrette, is briefed regularly on the project.

“I guarantee you there will be a wide public process once some of the technical decisions have been made,” Sullivan said.

Meanwhile, the municipality continues to battle in court with the prior port project designers, managers and consultants in an effort to recoup money lost over prior work.

Original port design lead PND Engineers Inc. has long said problems at Anchorage were caused by faulty installation, not the design, of its Open Cell Sheet Pile, which has been used at ports across Alaska.

To complete the transition, the latest installment of the port project comes with a new name as well. What was once the Port of Anchorage Intermodal Expansion Project is now the Anchorage Port Modernization Project.

The four dock concepts now being considered are similar in that they all keep TOTE and Horizon on the existing dock — moving their operations up and down the face during construction. Pushing the dock out from a current mean water depth of about 35 feet to 45 feet satisfies the military’s request for the future infrastructure, Vakalis said.

Both Sullivan and Vakalis said the municipality wants to impact TOTE and Horizon as little as possible during construction. The two companies provide regular transport service to Anchorage.

Sullivan said the city wants a port with a 75-year working life to reduce long-term maintenance costs. The original sheet pile plan was for 50 years.

After the planning charrette, CH2M Hill will be tasked with developing three designs to a 15 percent completion level based on the stakeholders’ desires. Vakalis said a concept plan would then be presented to the municipality in November.

The goal is to have a design in place by next spring, according to Sullivan.

“Quite possibly by this time next year, fall 2015, we could see some work commencing,” Sullivan said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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