Compass: Anchorage airport rail station was not unwanted Stevens-era pork

In his June 1 commentary in Alaska Dispatch, Donald Craig Mitchell referred to the rail station at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport as the federal earmark "that no one had asked for." That is not true. In the late 1990s, former Alaska Governor and Alaska Railroad CEO Bill Sheffield asked Sen. Stevens to help get money for this station as part of a larger plan for commuter rail for Southcentral Alaska.

At its December 1998 meeting, the Alaska Railroad Corporation's board, which included then-Commissioner of Alaska Department of Transportation Joe Perkins, voted to support the station and commuter rail as one way to help Anchorage reduce car traffic and meet air quality standards. I was physically present at the meeting, and the mood was upbeat and exciting.

The Alaska Chapter of the Sierra Club lent its support: in 2002 the Club's National Challenge to Sprawl Campaign chose the project as one of 20 "Transportation Solutions for the 21st Century" in terms of reducing traffic, sprawl, and saving energy. At a July 31, 2002, press conference held at the airport rail station while it was under construction, Sheffield, former Alaska Railroad CEO Pat Gamble, and longtime railroad official John Binkley all referred to the station and planned commuter service as "visionary."

The passenger and freight transportation provided by the Alaska Railroad already is visionary in the sense that it keeps thousands of cars and trucks off our highways. This helps keep down road maintenance costs and fuel emissions, as over long distances rail is a more energy efficient mode than highway. If commuter rail had actually begun, it would have taken more cars off the road by providing public transit for the airport's 10,000 employees.

So the problem is not that the airport rail station was built. The problem is that the vision was lost as federal and state priorities switched back to "more highways as usual."

While Sen. Stevens was able to get money for the railroad to straighten its track and make other capital improvements, operating money for commuter rail became harder to obtain. More recently, federal transportation funding of all sorts has been reduced.

For several years, bills have been introduced in the Alaska Legislature which would authorize a regional transportation authority (RTA) to operate commuter rail. The RTA would be a channel for state and local funds and make it easier to compete for limited federal funds. However, those bills have gone nowhere.

Instead, our Legislature has chosen to spend money on continued planning for a sprawl-inducing Knik Arm toll bridge rather than on authorizing an RTA and working with local governments to set it up and fund it. Indeed, just by Oct. 31, 2013, $79.4 million had been spent on the Knik Arm Crossing project -- 21/2 times what was needed to invest in and begin operating commuter rail in 2002. And $55 million in further appropriations were approved for the Knik project in the budget passed this year.

If Alaskans can push their legislators to authorize an RTA and then encourage our local governments to set it up, this would be a positive step toward using the airport rail station for something other than wedding receptions.

Cynthia Wentworth is an economist and anthropologist who was born and raised in Anchorage. She is a former employee of the Alaska Railroad Corporation and a longtime commuter rail activist.