WASILLA - What'll it take to bring commuter rail to the Valley?
Quite a bit it turns out, but Alaska Railroad Corp. is working on it.
At an open house discussing Mat-Su and state projects at Evangelo's Restaurant Wednesday, while there weren't many displays strictly talking about commuter rail, a few mentioned it in passing.
One was dedicated to straightening out a tight curve south of Fairview Loop where the road connects with Fireweed Road.
The railroad says it would cost $37 million to build the new track and that it has $5.5 million already. The project would save money and time.
"Shortened passenger travel times is a key factor to help make commuter rail service between Anchorage and Mat-Su," according to a railroad fact sheet.
It might not seem like a big deal to straighten out a short piece of track like that, but with sharp turns in a track, the trains have to slow down dramatically. For years the railroad has been straightening its track, slowly shaving down the time to run between Anchorage and Mat-Su.
"Ten years ago it took 90 minutes to get a train from Anchorage to Wasilla," said Tom Brooks, the railroad's chief engineer.
He said that time has been steadily reduced to 60 minutes and the realignment at Fairview Loop will shave off more time.
"That actually would take another five minutes off," he said.
Brooks said the curves were put in back in 1919 or so when the track was first laid down. There's a pretty significant gully there and trains don't do well on inclines, so the track followed the grade around the gully. Brooks said it'll take a pretty significant embankment, dozens of feet tall, to fix that problem - hence the project's expense.
The second project the railroad is looking at is a smaller straightening project in the Eklutna area. It's a smaller fix, but trains go into the curve at 49 mph and have to slow down to 45 mph. The fix will cost about $1.4 million and the railroad won a competitive nationwide federal grant to do the work, which should start this summer.
"It makes our trains a little happier," Brooks said.
As the railroad steadily whittles down commute times, it does so knowing that there are other big pieces that still need to fall into place. What do you do with cars on one end and people on the other?
Some of these things have already started. The railroad has put together a sample schedule of a Mat-Su to Anchorage route. They think a type of self-propelled, 100-seat car making runs in Chugach National Forest would be the type of train they'd use.
But railroad corporate communications officer Stephanie Wheeler said there's also a legislative component here. The state Legislature needs to OK this kind of thing.
"We're working with the (Mat-Su) Borough and the city of Anchorage to try to pull together a regional transit authority," she said.
And she noted that most public transportation projects run on subsidies. If riders paid what a bus ride cost, nobody would be able to afford it. So they need more than just a one-time outlay of funds.
"It needs a stable funding source," Wheeler said.
Contact Andrew Wellner at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-2270.