Anchorage sues feds, requests $350M for new port design

Rendering/Courtesy/Municipality of Anchorage

Another year began with another lawsuit in the Port of Anchorage saga, but it ended with the promise of progress as well.

The Municipality of Anchorage filed suit against the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, Feb. 28 in Federal Claims Court, an effort to recoup damages the city claims it is owed for the failed port expansion project that spanned 10 years and yielded little for the more than $300 million spent on the 53-year-old port.

MARAD managed the Port of Anchorage Intermodal Expansion Project from 2003 until 2012. The municipality took oversight control of the project late in 2012 and soon after sued the original port designer, a project consultant and MARAD’s contracted managing firm.

Anchorage is looking for up to $340 million from one or all of the now five adversaries it has in court, according to city attorneys. The municipality sued GeoEngineers Inc. this year, adding another design consultant to its first case in U.S. District Court.

Outside the courtroom, Anchorage closed the book on the Port of Anchorage Intermodal Expansion Project and began the scaled-down Anchorage Port Modernization Project. A weeklong design scoping meeting in August led to a preliminary design revealed in November that project manager — and defendant in the first port lawsuit — CH2M Hill said would cost about $485 million.

The municipality is asking for $350 million from the Legislature to finish the project in the coming years. That amount would be added to the $130 million it still has from the first round of work.

2. Knik bridge gets new plan

The Knik Arm bridge project changed hands and moved forward with a new plan in 2014.

House Bill 23 passed by the Legislature in April shifted funding and construction responsibilities to the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities from the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, which led the work for more than 10 years. The change was brought about by former Gov. Sean Parnell’s new financing plan for the up to $900 million toll bridge — a three-pronged public funding plan instead of a public-private financing collaboration.

KABATA will manage toll collection and maintain the bridge if it is built.

The financing plan passed in HB 23 calls for $300 million each in state bonds, federal infrastructure, or TIFIA, loans and state-matched federal highway funds.

In December the project team released a long-awaited socioeconomic impact study that projects minimal impacts on job and population numbers for Anchorage, Palmer and Wasilla whether or not the bridge is built. Development at Point MacKenzie is dependent on the bridge being built.

The study also determined that toll revenue from bridge traffic at $5 per use for noncommercial vehicles will be sufficient to pay for the federal loans a couple years after the bridge is finished in 2020.

3. Ferry construction underway, fares to increase

Work began on two new ferries and the Alaska Marine Highway System announced its first system-wide fare increase in years.

A keel-laying ceremony held at Vigor Alaska’s shipyard in Ketchikan Dec. 13 marked the official kickoff of construction on the first AMHS ferries to be built in Alaska.

Vigor Alaska was awarded the contract Oct. 16 to build what have been dubbed the Alaska class day boats.

The 280-foot ferries were funded completely with state money — $120 million for the pair — with the idea that they would always be built in Ketchikan if Vigor and the state could reach an agreement. They are scheduled to be ready for service in October 2018.

The last ferry added to the state’s 11-vessel fleet was the fast ferry Fairweather in 2005.

In September, the AMHS released the design study report for the M/V Tustumena replacement, which outlines the concept design and amenities for the vessel.

Replacing the 50-year-old Tustumena will likely be a 330-foot vessel — 34 feet longer — better equipped to handle the open ocean Aleutian route the “Rusty Tusty” serves.

A day before the keel-laying deputy at a Marine Transportation Advisory Board meeting Transportation commissioner Reuben Yost said fares on most AMHS routes would increase 4.5 percent beginning May 1. It is the first sweeping rate hike since 2007, according to Yost.

The price hike will affect travel booked after Jan. 1. Routes with fares 25 percent higher than similar-length trips will not be included in the rate increase.

The ferry system also pulled a ban on travel by unaccompanied minors in November before the policy went into effect. Yost said unforeseen flak from the public caused the AMHS to scrap the idea. In the future, parents of minors traveling alone will probably have to sign a form approving their travel depending on the age of the child, Yost said.

4. Unmanned aircraft industry takes off

Alaska’s unmanned aircraft industry took some leaps forward in 2014.

The nation’s first overland commercial flight of an unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, as they are called in the industry, took place in the North Slope June 8.

UAS manufacturer AeroVironment flew its fixed-wing Puma for BP with the mission of surveying gravel roads and pads on the Slope.

ConocoPhillips was the first company in the country to receive authorization for commercial flights over Chukchi Sea in 2013.

A May, a quad-rotor flight in Fairbanks marked the opening of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, which is affiliated with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The Center for Unmanned Aircraft Integration was chosen by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate one of six test sites across the country on Dec. 30, 2013. The Alaska-based Pan-Pacific test site stretches into Oregon and Hawaii as well.

UAS are believed to be a prime tool for all kinds of work — wildlife counting, wildfire monitoring, oil and gas infrastructure surveying — in remote parts of Alaska once the FAA approves widespread use of the craft.

A draft rule detailing how commercial UAS operations will be regulated could be made available by the FAA for public comment within several weeks, according to agency officials in Alaska.

5. A year in flux for the Alaska Railroad

It was an up-and-down year for the Alaska Railroad Corp.

The year began on a sour note when Flint Hills Resources announced it would close its North Pole refinery, a major freight customer of the railroad. The Alaska Railroad hauled up to 2 million tons of jet fuel from the refinery to Anchorage annually since 2008.

That loss of business probably cost the railroad about $11 million, according to its CEO Bill O’Leary.

The 2014 legislative session was a mixed bag for the Alaska Railroad. It got $15 million of a $20.2 million appropriation to fund its federally-mandated Positive Train Control work.

The unfunded safety system requirement for passenger railroads will likely cost the railroad more than $156 million in all.

Over the next three state fiscal years, the railroad will need another $53.5 million from the Legislature and it has no where else to go, spokesman Tim Sullivan said.

However, increased railroad-barge service, primarily from oil and gas companies, generated $5.1 million in unexpected revenue for the railroad through November, Sullivan said. That money has been put towards funding Positive Train Control infrastructure.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/18/2016 - 11:27am