City hosts closed-door summit to discuss port project

Lisa Demer

Mayor Dan Sullivan, trying to find a solution to the troubled Port of Anchorage expansion project, brought shippers, government officials, and other interested parties to a closed-door port summit Tuesday at City Hall.

"This is a project that's too big to fail, too important to fail," Sullivan said.

City officials said ahead of time that the meeting was closed to the public so that parties could speak freely. The mayor said restricting access would also allow proprietary business information to be discussed.

The goal was to try to build consensus for a scaled-down port project "so that we can seek funding with a common voice," Sullivan said afterward.

"We can't simply Band-Aid the existing port and have it be viable for the next generation of users," the mayor said.

Most of the players are on board. But one of the major shippers, Totem Ocean Trailer Express Inc., or Tote, still has some concerns, said Sullivan and others. Efforts to speak with Tote officials were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Most of what Alaskans eat, wear and drive comes through the Port of Anchorage, which city and state officials call an essential piece of infrastructure.

The port turns 50 this year, and the old steel piles that hold up the dock are deteriorating and need to be replaced, city and port officials have said.

The city had been looking to replace the aging dock with a similar design when, years ago, port director Bill Sheffield began pushing for a different approach.

The full-scale project championed by Sheffield would involve erecting a 1.5 mile-long wall of steel into the sea floor to create a new dock face, then backfilling it with gravel to create 135 acres of new land.

But the effort has been plagued by problems. The estimated price tag escalated to well over $1 billion by late last year. A number of the steel sheets were damaged during installation. Engineers are still working on a solution to repair the damage and ensure the steel goes in correctly.

Sullivan has asked the port to propose a smaller version.

The latest configuration would cost $322 million, on top of $265 million already spent, and add new ship and barge berths. The more expensive, full-scale project still should be built eventually, the mayor said.

Unlike an option presented to an Anchorage Assembly committee in May, this proposal would move both cargo carriers, Tote and Horizon Lines Inc. to the new dock area, Sullivan said.

"There was general agreement to finish the north end," said Assembly member Jennifer Johnston, who was the only member at the summit. She chairs the Assembly's new enterprise oversight committee, which includes the port.

If port customers, the city and the port itself all support a smaller project, "the state is unlikely to second-guess that decision," Randy Ruaro, an aide to Gov. Sean Parnell who participated in Tuesday's meeting, said in an email afterward. He's still looking into the particulars.

Two dozen people were listed as participants, though some were on the phone and some didn't take part after all. The list included two Washington, D.C., lobbyists who work on city and port issues, though only one participated, the city said.

Three officials with the federal Maritime Administration including an attorney came to the meeting. The Maritime Administration has been the lead agency in charge of spending on contracts for the port project. City officials have faulted it for not providing enough oversight. The agency says it's working to overhaul its agreement with the port and the city to improve accountability.

Much of the money spent so far has come from federal earmarks, but that source dried up in the current Congress.

Funding remains the biggest issue, Sullivan said.

"We'd like to know there is enough money in the bank tomorrow because then you could really set a hard schedule," he said.

The city is hoping for a statewide port bond referendum on the 2012 ballot, the mayor said.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.

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