City is considering three options to resolve the troubled port expansion

ldemer@adn.comDecember 16, 2012 

The best options for the beleaguered Port of Anchorage project involve ripping out most of the new dock areas already constructed and then either replacing or shoring up the old dock, city officials say.

One proposed fix would leave the two major cargo carriers at the old dock, which the city says is deteriorating and at the end of its useful life.

Three possibilities came out of a recent three-day session that brought in all the key players: the port, the two cargo carriers that serve Anchorage, tug boat operators, marine pilots, consulting engineers CH2M Hill, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Maritime Administration. The latter is the federal agency that managed the troubled project.

The city has been working for more than a decade to improve and replace the 51-year-old dock and settled on a design patented by PND Engineers Inc. as Open Cell Sheet Pile. Instead of a traditional dock on piling, the new dock was being built as a series of U-shaped steel cells backfilled with gravel to create new land.

Major construction halted after inspections in 2009 and 2010 found that hundreds of the interlocking steel sheets that form the new dock face were damaged. The Maritime Administration, or MARAD, contracted with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year to determine whether the Open Cell Sheet Pile design could be constructed at the port site.

PND ENGINEERS FIGHT BACK

The Corps hired CH2M Hill, which concluded that even if the steel sheets were driven into the seafloor correctly, an open-cell dock structure could fail during an earthquake.

PND Engineers sharply disputes that conclusion.

"We at PND and our subcontractors stand behind the design and analysis we performed, which was validated after multiple reviews by MARAD, USACE (Corps of Engineers) and other public entities as well as PND's 32-year reputation and history of success," PND president John Pickering wrote in a Dec. 4 letter to the municipality.

PND still is reviewing its draft copy of the 2,200-page CH2M Hill study, which hasn't been publicly released, but wants to help the municipality complete the port project, he wrote.

None of the top three strategies for moving ahead keep the existing design, City Manager George Vakalis said Friday in a briefing to the Anchorage Assembly.

None of the options "call for Open Cell Sheet Pile. It calls for standard pile," Vakalis said.

The project was unusually managed from the start, he said. MARAD hired Integrated Concepts and Research Corp. as project manager, and ICRC also served as general contractor, hiring subcontractors to do the work, Vakalis said.

Usually, the project manager is separate from the construction work, he said.

And the agreement that put a federal agency in charge failed to ensure the city's interests as owner were protected, he said. MARAD didn't even have a representative on site as construction problems emerged.

Ken Privratsky, who saw the troubles from his vantage point as an executive with shipper Horizon Lines before his retirement, said in a recent e-mail that "it's not unusual for projects to go south. It should be unusual for projects to go so far south, like this one did, before others begin thinking about it."

Most of the goods consumed in Alaska come through the Port of Anchorage. Maybe it's time for such a critical facility to be run by a port authority, Privratsky said.

THREE IDEAS

Early on, the city was considering a standard dock on piling similar to the current dock. But former Gov. Bill Sheffield, then serving as port director, liked PND's proposal, which was billed as a cheaper alternative and a smart way to add land. Even now PND says a bulkhead system is the best approach, despite the construction problems and the CH2M Hill study.

As troubles mounted on the construction site, so did costs. Already more than $300 million has been spent on constructing new dock sections now known to be flawed, as well as a new rail line, roads, utilities, drainage systems and new acreage that mainly will remain in place.

The three options all involve ripping out the steel sheets at the port's northern end and installing another material, perhaps armor rock, to hold in place the fill already placed there. Only a single new barge berth is undamaged and sound, the CH2M Hill study found. The city plans to leave that barge berth intact.

Here are key elements of three alternatives:

• Option one. The two major carriers that serve Anchorage -- Totem Ocean Trailer Express, or TOTE, and Horizon Lines -- would remain at their existing berths. A new deepwater berth and a barge berth would be added in the new northern section once the damaged material is removed.

"You'd have a traditional, pile-supported wharf, much like we have now," Port Engineer Todd Cowles said. "We'd probably construct it differently, with maybe a more robust piling."

• Option two. Both TOTE and Horizon would move temporarily out of their existing terminals to other space on the old dock. Those two old terminals then would be demolished and rebuilt, and the shippers would return to new dock space. A new pile-supported barge berth likely would be added in the northern end.

• Hybrid option: Two of the existing terminals on the old dock would be replaced, as in the second option. In addition, a new deepwater berth would be constructed in the northern section that could double as a barge berth, Cowles said.

ASSEMBLY QUESTIONS

CH2M Hill now is doing further analysis of those options. In February, the consultants plan to submit to the city preliminary engineering work and cost estimates. The firm is being paid $2.2 million for the initial study on whether the project can be built as designed, and will receive an additional $456,000 for the second phase.

At Friday's meeting, Assembly member Dick Traini asked who will make the decision on which route to take.

The municipality will have final approval, Vakalis said. Oversight for the project already has shifted from MARAD back to the municipality, he said. Mayor Dan Sullivan, who earlier directed the mega-project be scaled back, will give guidance, he said. And the Assembly must approve the contracts, he said.

Assembly member Debbie Ossiander asked whether the city had initially contracted for a traditional dock on piling, then changed its mind. Vakalis said he'd get back to her on the details.

Another Assembly member, Elvi Gray-Jackson, asked how the city planned to respond to PND's challenge of the CH2M Hill study.

In his four-page letter, PND's Pickering outlined the engineering firm's "preliminary response to the allegations, innuendoes, implications and misrepresentations" set out in the CH2M Hill study. Among other issues, PND says the port project is being built on firm, stable soils within the Bootlegger Cove formation, not the type of Bootlegger Cove soil that failed in the 1964 earthquake.

CH2M Hill and the Corps of Engineers will have to defend their report, Vakalis said. But city lawyers likely would address some of the issues raised by PND in an executive session, Vakalis said.

The Assembly then went into a closed-door session to discuss the prospect of litigation over the project.

The 2,200-page study is scheduled for release to the public around Feb. 4, with the second phase detailing options to follow that month.

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