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Anchorage port project stymied for yet another season

Lisa Demer
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

A huge, expensive and troubled expansion of the Port of Anchorage remains stalled for a third construction season while engineers study the best way forward.

"There is no construction plan for this summer and the likelihood of their being any is very, very low," said Steve Ribuffo, the interim port director.

The municipality has been working for more than a decade to replace the aging port, which turned 50 last year and is a prime economic driver in Alaska. Most of what residents eat, drink, wear and drive comes through it. The dock sits on corroded piles that are expensive to maintain.

Problems with the project became apparent during the 2009 summer work season. Steel piles being hammered into the seabed to form a new dock face bent and jammed together. Divers sent down to inspect the damage found gaps between the piles that threatened the integrity of the structure. Since then, most of the work has involved inspecting the work already done and removing damaged sheets of steel.

Now engineering studies are under way to find out what went wrong and how to make it right.

The previous port director, Bill Sheffield, retired in January. Sheffield, a former one-term governor who was one of the new port design's biggest boosters, was supposed to stay connected through a $60,000 port consulting contract. But Ribuffo said the Anchorage Assembly never approved the contract. Ribuffo, a five-year port veteran and retired Air Force colonel, was a candidate for the top job and will stay on as deputy director.

Mayor Dan Sullivan on Wednesday announced a new port director, Rich Wilson, who will start May 14.

Wilson had worked as development director at Stevens International Airport and also helped turn around a troubled port project in St. George, on the Pribilof Islands. He told reporters his life's work has been in airports and ports and that the municipality is positioned "to finish the critical elements of a fully functional port facility."

He said he'll join a top-notch team now working on the project.

"Together our job is to assess where we are and determine what we want to accomplish, and go do it," Wilson said.

The expansion is especially complicated because the port must continue to operate, with cargo ships docking twice weekly, during construction.

The public should get a peek at the port during open houses this summer, though they likely won't be every Sunday as in the past three years, Ribuffo said. Cruise ships are scheduled to call eight times. And the port is already gearing up for a christening of a new Navy ship, the USS Anchorage, which should happen next year, Ribuffo said.

CITY TAKEOVER

The port redo was supposed to be finished by 2011. It is years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. In 2005, before construction began, the project cost was estimated at $350 million. But the estimate later tripled to more than $1 billion.

Instead of a traditional dock supported by piling, the new design consists of a series of U-shaped steel cells linked one to the next and backfilled with gravel to create new land. It's called "open cell sheet pile," a trademark registered to the project designer, PND Engineers Inc.

Sullivan decided to scale back the project. The city most recently proposed adding two new berths for cargo ships -- one fewer than originally proposed -- and two for barges at a cost of $650 million, counting more than $300 million already spent. One of the new barge berths is finished and is being used as a staging area for a contractor working on the Fire Island wind turbine project. The particulars could change, depending on what the reviews now in progress conclude.

The municipality is preparing to assume responsibility for the project at the end of May from the federal Maritime Administration. The city agreed in 2003 to let the federal agency take the lead, even though it had never overseen a port redevelopment before. The Maritime Administration hired Integrated Concepts and Research Corp., another port expansion novice and at the time an Alaska Native contractor, to oversee the construction. The latest one-year extension of the federal government's contract with ICRC ends May 31.

Sullivan and others wanted to see the city back in charge.

DESIGN EXAMINED

An independent study of the design's suitability is being done by the engineering firm CH2M Hill under a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It is examining "the associated hydrologic, geotechnical, structural, and seismic conditions to determine the appropriateness and/or potential for improvements of the current design." It was supposed to be finished in April, but won't be done until July or August because of the need to collect additional information, according to the Corps. The study's estimated cost is now $2 million.

The Corps is working on its own companion study. And another big engineering firm, AECOM, is conducting a root cause analysis of what went wrong. In addition, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation is auditing the Maritime Administration's work on the Anchorage project and others.

"Before we commit to doing anything more we want to know what those studies say because the likelihood is very high that information will need to inform us to the degree we step ahead smartly," Ribuffo said.

He doesn't expect the city to start anew. But the studies may point to the need to modify the design, he said. The city and its partners, including the Corps of Engineers and the Maritime Administration, are still working out an organizational structure, including who will oversee contracting, and who will manage the project day-to-day.

For the port expansion, the state Legislature this year agreed to provide $48.5 million and included another $50 million in a bond package that will go before voters in November. Some of that will likely be used for new design work, Ribuffo said.

Lawsuits over the early construction were filed in federal and state court but are on hold while the parties try to work out a settlement.

The problems have been painful to the port staff, Ribuffo said. The port operation is lean, he said, with 25 staff members, including 15 maintenance workers.

"We are looking forward to putting this whole thing back on track. It's unfortunate that we've lost as many years as we've had but we need to make wise use of the time to plan a way ahead and get some of the confidence in us back."

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.


By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News