HOUSTON — It’s the Mat-Su Borough and the Alaska Railroad’s largest ongoing project. But you’ll have to leave the beaten path to get a look at the dirt work going on for the Port MacKenzie Rail Extension.
An agreement the borough and Alaska Railroad Corp. inked in 2007 began a years-long process of designing, permitting and constructing new rail, from just south of Houston to the borough’s tidewater at Port MacKenzie, said Borough Public Affairs Director Patty Sullivan.
A groundbreaking ceremony at 2:30 p.m., June 4 at Port MacKenzie will make the formal start for the construction phase of the rail extension project. Gov. Sean Parnell is among speakers confirmed for the event, Sullivan said.
In advance of that ceremony, the borough organized a media tour May 29 of segments 6 and 3. The 32-mile project is divided into six segments of track that will eventually connect the railroad’s main line to the borough’s port.
Bristol Environmental was awarded the contact for segment 1, on the Port MacKenzie end, and began dirt work there in 2012.
Then in February, Granite was awarded the contract for segment 6 and in March, Quality Asphalt Paving won the bid to build segment 3.
Segment 4 is out to bid now and a contact will be awarded this spring, Sullivan said.
Thus far, the borough has received $171 million in state grants and bonds for the rail extension project. The total project cost is estimated at $272.5 million. When the project is complete depends in large part on when the borough and railroad get the remaining $101.5 million needed to finish work.
Bob Hanson, who oversees contracts for Alaska Railroad, said this year’s cold, wet spring has delayed construction. A mix of muddy and frozen ground conditions bogged down work on segment 1 until last week.
“The construction season is about three weeks behind,” Hanson said.
On segments 3 and 6, he said contactors were working quickly to have all the trees taken down before the May 15 deadline in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Because the borough owns the land along the rail route, Sullivan said the plan is to salvage suitable trees for personal use firewood.
Segment 6, located off Miller’s Reach Road, burned during the June 1996 by the same name. Hanson said that’s why much of the birch, spruce and cottonwood trees taken down here can’t be resold.
But Sullivan said on other segments, personal-use firewood and commercial firewood sales are planned.
Cliff Williams is HDR’s resident engineer and is responsible for construction management, right of way, and permitting for segments 2 through 6. He’s part of the project team that has met weekly for the past six years while the mega project navigated the design and permitting process.
HDR is overseeing the contractors that are building from plans Hanson Alaska LLC and its subconsultant firms designed and engineered for the project's subgrade, tracks, buildings, etc.
Along with the borough and railroad, the lead federal agency on the project is the Surface Transportation Board. Because the project requires federal approval, an Environmental Impact Statement was prepared as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, Sullivan said.
Following the NEPA review, the Surface Transportation Board in December 2011 authorized the railroad to build and operate the new rail line, she said.
Once the new line is complete, Hanson said the borough and railroad will operate it jointly.
“The Alaska Railroad will eventually run trains to Point Mac as the economics dictate,” Hanson said.
He said trains could be chugging along the new track as soon as 2016-17, depending on funding.
Currently, Hanson is one of about 116 people working on the project between the railroad, the borough and their contactors. Once the segment 4 bid is awarded, Sullivan said the number of people working on the rail extension project will climb to around 200.
Segment 6 is nearest the road, about a mile down Miller’s Reach Road in Houston. The construction site there is busy with dump trucks, scrappers, bulldozers, graders moving dirt from here to there to level the earth and create an embankment for the rail bed.
This segment is a long Y shape that will tie the main line in Houston to the Port Mackenzie Extension.
Hanson said the design calls for switches in the siding that can be thrown in Anchorage to transfer a train off the main line onto the siding, which will connect to new rail to Port MacKenzie.
By the end of the 2013 construction season, he said Granite plans to have the rail bed and embankment prepared for tracks to be added next summer.
Hanson said construction on the other two segments will be built as design and funding is ready to go.
The three segments under construction currently total about $88 million in work, Sullivan said. When the fourth segment comes online that total will climb to about $100 million.
She said the borough and railroad are excited about the opportunities for economic growth the project represents. Sullivan cited a bit of number crunching from longtime University of Alaska Fairbanks geological engineering professor Paul Metz. According to Metz’ estimates, there are 1,000 mineral deposits along the railroad’s route.
“If just three of those are developed, it could equal $1 billion a year for 100 years,” Sullivan said.
Beyond speculative new mining operations, she said Fort Knox Mine has expressed interest in the route since it would reduce the shipping distance to tidewater by 141 miles.
“We’ve been saying all along that the shorter distance to the tidewater will make it more cost effective to develop resources in the Interior,” Sullivan said.
For more information, visit portmacrail.com/index.html.
Contact managing editor Heather A. Resz at
352-2268 or email@example.com.