Port of Anchorage plan to be ready by spring
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assessment of the Port of Anchorage expansion project is due in late October and port officials aim to have a revamped plan ready by next spring, port manager Rich Wilson says.
In November, voters will be asked to approve $50 million for the Port of Anchorage as part of a statewide, $453.5 million general obligation bond proposition to fund transportation projects.
“By next spring our team is anticipating presenting a plan for building port facilities that meet updated business requirements,” Wilson said.
Wilson took over as manager at the Port of Anchorage on May 14, following the retirement of long-time port director and former Gov. Bill Sheffield. He was previously business development manager at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and was city administrator at St. George, in the Pribilof Islands.
What’s first on Wilson’s agenda for the port, beyond ensuring smooth operations, is to develop a long-range business plan on which to base the expansion. He hopes to have a contractor on board by October to develop the business plan, the first part of a port master plan.
The effort is now on restoring confidence in the port expansion, he said. The facility handles about 4 million tons of freight annually, including about 80 percent of food and other supplies for Southcentral and Interior Alaska.
“We were dealt a blow by the challenges that hit the expansion plan for which the port got tagged,” somewhat unfairly because a federal agency, the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, was actually in charge of the project, Wilson said. MARAD had not previously managed major construction.
Cost overruns partly caused by new environmental requirements as well as damage to open cell sheet piles during the previous construction have plagued the project. The pricetag on the full expansion was headed toward $1 billion.
Last year, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan asked for a more affordable, scaled-back project and also changed the management structure so that the Municipality of Anchorage will run the project. Previously the city, which owns the port, had a minor role in construction decisions.
“We’re working now to rebuild confidence by engaging people and validating the business requirements,” Wilson said.
Wilson said the new construction plan will focus on repairing the previous damage to the sheet piles and finishing phase one of the expansion, which are the two barge docks at the port’s north end. Maintenance work will meanwhile continue on the existing, aged steel piles that support the current dock. Some of those are more than 50 years old.
There’s no doubt, however, that the existing dock will eventually have to be replaced and that some form of the original expansion, which will replace the old dock, is needed.
Corrosion is taking its toll on the old steel pilings. These are being strengthened with steel “sleeves” installed around the corroded piling, but the cost of the maintenance is running around $1 million a year or more.
Even if the dock is maintained it is becoming difficult for the facility to handle the weight of some industrial cargoes being unloaded, Wilson said.
For example, heavy new turbines needed for Matanuska Electric Association’s power plant now under construction at Eklutna will stretch the weight-bearing capability of the dock to the limit when they are unloaded, he said.
Also, the dock won’t support the weight of new cranes that Horizon Lines, a major customer, would like to install to be able to unload larger ships that will be coming on line.
The port’s existing cranes can reach out 35 feet to lift containers off decks of vessels moored the dock, Wilson said, but the new cranes would be able to reach out 100 feet. The dock can’t handle the weight, however.
More important is that a new, stronger dock is needed in case there is another major earthquake. The existing dock may not survive that, which could shut down a port that handles 80 percent of the food and other supplies for Southcentral and Interior Alaska.
Meanwhile, the work that has already been done on the expansion has brought the port new business. So far 63 acres of new, usable port land has been added at the site of the new barge docks. There are customers for the new space, mainly builders of Cook Inlet Region Inc.’s new wind project on Fire Island and Golden Valley Electric Assoc.’s wind project at Eva Creek, near Healy.
“These are short-term leases, but we were able to make $30,000 to $40,000 per month in lease and dockage revenues,” Wilson said.
Most of the port’s business has been stable, but one other new prospect is a plan by Delta Western to build a new bulk fuel storage facility as a “hub” for its fuel service to western Alaska villages, Wilson said.
Tesoro Corp. and Flint Hills Resources, which operate refineries, as well as Crowley, a major fuel distributor, currently operate fuel storage facilities at the port. Petroleum loading and unloading, and storage is a major business for the port.
A new initiative, Wilson said, is to lease 100 acres adjacent to port property that is owned by Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson. The land will serve as additional space for “laydown” for materials or equipment storage. Wilson said he hopes to finalize the agreement for the lease within 18 months.
Meanwhile, a lot of the infrastructure built so far on the port expansion is a good investment, Wilson said. A road has been built up the hill behind the port to JBER that initially served to support movement of gravel, but it now provides direct access to the base for movement of military vehicles during a deployment.
The utilities, a road link and an extension of a double row of rail track along the back of the port are also useful. The rail link, which still needs a final increment of extension, will be useful for direct loading of rail cars from barges at the new barge docks, eliminating a truck shuttle.
It also serves a purpose now by allowing military vehicles during a deployment to be moved directly by rail to the large storage area on the port’s north end, eliminating having to unload the vehicles from the train in the main railroad yard and move them along the port’s main access road.
“Our overall goals are to hold the line on rates for service, offsetting our cost increases; to sustain reliability of service; be able to serve the military needs as one of the nation’s 19 strategic ports for defense needs, and to take advantage of new technologies as they develop,” Wilson said.
The port has held the line on rates for several years. “We live within our means,” Wilson said, but the port has also had to defer maintenance.
“We are hoping the expansion will eventually give us the stability that we need,” he said.
Tim Bradner can be reached at email@example.com.