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City to get draft of port study, but details secret until after bond vote

Lisa Demer

A major study of whether Anchorage's expensive and troubled port replacement project can be built as designed will be in the city's hands Tuesday, but the public won't get its first chance to hear key findings until weeks later.

That briefing for the Anchorage Assembly is set for Nov. 9 -- three days after Alaska voters will decide whether to approve a $453 million statewide transportation bond that includes $50 million for the city port project.

Mayor Dan Sullivan, port officials, city lawyers and U.S. Maritime Administration representatives were briefed Oct. 2 by engineering firm CH2M Hill on the study of the expanded port's design. The Army Corps of Engineers has been overseeing the study at the request of the Maritime Administration, known as MARAD, which has been the lead agency over the port project. A Corps spokesman has said the study cost an estimated $2 million; MARAD is paying for it.

Asked to sum up the study, including its conclusion on whether the project can be built as designed, Sullivan said he couldn't answer that question. One reason: his signature on a confidentiality agreement sought by MARAD.

"When the draft is released, you'll have the bottom line," Sullivan said in a recent interview. "Because we obviously all signed confidentiality agreements in the process and until it is a released document, we really can't get too much into detail."

Why is there a delay of more than three weeks between the time the city receives the draft study and the scheduled Nov. 9 briefing for the Assembly and a separate one for the city's Geotechnical Advisory Commission?

The city, the port and MARAD need time to "edit, correct, comment and amend before the public briefing," the mayor's spokeswoman, Lindsey Whitt, said in a follow-up e-mail. Both Nov. 9 meetings will be open to the public, and Assembly members will be able to ask questions. But the public won't be able to testify.

The city doesn't expect to release the actual study until mid-December, Whitt said.

The geotechnical commission, made up of engineers, needs ample time to review, analyze and comment on the study before it becomes final, she said. Commission members have long called for an independent review of the port design. The study is expected to run about 2,200 pages, according to the city.

A key issue in the troubled port expansion is the design itself, using giant vertical sheets of steel driven into the Inlet floor to hold backfill and create new land. Pressed on whether the project can be built as designed, Sullivan answered this way: "That remains to be seen. Until we see the draft document and have a chance to interpret it, analyze it -- like I say, there will be what they call a technical review of it -- I wouldn't be prepared to answer that question."



The city has been trying for years to replace the 51-year-old port. A decade ago under then-port director Bill Sheffield, it settled on a design by PND Engineers Inc. patented as Open Cell Sheet Pile.

Crews were supposed to hammer in long sheets of steel that would connect one to the next and form a series of U-shapes, or cells. The front of the steel cells would serve as the new dock face, and the area behind would be filled in with gravel and dirt. The old structure, a more familiar dock on piling, eventually would be ripped out.

But construction halted in 2009 when inspections revealed a number of steel sheets already installed had bent and jammed together in some spots and split apart in others, threatening the integrity of the structure. Three construction seasons have passed with little new work.

The port is essential to the state, the mayor says. Food and clothing, new vehicles and construction supplies, baby diapers and kitty litter all move through it.

About $300 million already has been spent. Sullivan has proposed scaling back the project and keeping costs to about $650 million, down from $1 billion for the full new dock. In 2005, before construction began, the total project cost was estimated at $350 million.

Critics question how voters can properly consider the bond measure without knowing what the port redo will entail.

"The public has a right to know what they are voting on," said Bob Shavelson, advocacy director for Cook Inletkeeper, an environmental watchdog group. "When you're talking about public money and something as important as the Port of Anchorage, it should be a public, open, transparent process."

Sullivan said that whether the city sticks with the original design or moves to something new, the project will cost hundreds of millions of additional dollars. Meanwhile, the city has taken on greater responsibility for the project, he said.

"It can be safely said they are voting on funding the most important public infrastructure project in the state," the mayor said. "Now that it's under our direction, going forward, I can assure them personally that it's going to be money well spent on a project that's absolutely necessary."


AGREEMENTS for secrecy

Shavelson seemed surprised the mayor and other city officials signed confidentiality agreements.

"Mold grows in darkness and wherever there is secrecy in government, there's someone trying to hide something," he said.

Sullivan said that MARAD required the "confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement," which he signed on Aug. 29.

City purchasing officers, port officials, engineers and lawyers signed similar agreements at the direction of MARAD, according to a list provided by municipal attorney Dennis Wheeler.

MARAD officials weren't prepared late Monday to discuss the confidentiality issue.

The agency cannot comment on the study itself until it receives it, and it only got an initial briefing when the mayor did, said Kim Riddle, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which includes MARAD.

But the confidentiality document signed by Sullivan makes no mention of the CH2M Hill study, according to a copy provided by the city. Rather, it shows he agreed not to disclose anything marked confidential, attorney-client communications, documents that relate to litigation, and procurement information.

"It's not unusual with draft documents, especially when you've got sensitive legal issues going on," Sullivan said, explaining why he considered the study to be covered by the agreement. "As you know, there's an awful lot of he said/she said and there's a lot of issues that are being decided by lawyers and as long as that is going on, it really does remain a draft, confidential document."

MARAD, port contractors and subcontractors are embroiled in contract disputes over the initial construction. Lawsuits are pending in state and federal court.

CH2M Hill also will be recommending how to complete the port project, Sullivan said. That report is not due until February 2013.

"It may entail the current design or it may entail some new ideas," the mayor said. "So that really is going to be important for us to hear their suggestions on what is the best way."

The mayor expects construction to resume by next summer.


Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.