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As traffic grows, Whittier tunnel flourishes during summer months

Megan Edge
LOREN HOLMES / Alaska Dispatch In addition to large firefighting trucks, the tunnel operators have ATVs, which can move around cars within the tunnel. June 19, 2014
Loren Holmes
LOREN HOLMES / Alaska Dispatch The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, North America’s longest combined rail-highway tunnel, on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The tunnel connects the town of Whittier to Portage, and the rest of Alaska.
Loren Holmes
LOREN HOLMES / Alaska Dispatch Massive air handlers keep the 2.5 mile long tunnel supplied with fresh air. June 19, 2014
Loren Holmes
LOREN HOLMES / Alaska Dispatch The 2.5 mile long tunnel has eight safe houses, which can provide refuge during an emergency. To date, they have never been used. June 19, 2014
Loren Holmes
LOREN HOLMES / Alaska Dispatch The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, North America’s longest combined rail-highway tunnel, on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The tunnel connects the town of Whittier to Portage, and the rest of Alaska.
Loren Holmes
LOREN HOLMES / Alaska Dispatch The tunnel walls are a mixture of bare rock and concrete, shown here. June 19, 2014
Loren Holmes
LOREN HOLMES / Alaska Dispatch The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, North America’s longest combined rail-highway tunnel, on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The tunnel connects the town of Whittier to Portage, and the rest of Alaska.
Loren Holmes
LOREN HOLMES / Alaska Dispatch The rail line that runs through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel terminates in Whittier, which was built during World War II. The Buckner Building, seen here, was built during the cold war and has been abandoned since the 1964 earthquake. June 19, 2014
Loren Holmes
LOREN HOLMES / Alaska Dispatch Tourists watch the Chenega fast ferry pulls into the dock in Whittier on Thursday, June 19, 2014. Departing is the ferry Aurora.
Loren Holmes
LOREN HOLMES / Alaska Dispatch Driving through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, North America’s longest combined rail-highway tunnel, on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The tunnel connects the town of Whittier to Portage, and the rest of Alaska.
Loren Holmes
LOREN HOLMES / Alaska Dispatch A vehicle enters the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, North America’s longest combined rail-highway tunnel, on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The tunnel connects the town of Whittier to Portage, and the rest of Alaska.
Loren Holmes
LOREN HOLMES / Alaska Dispatch Tunnel control operator Daniel Gutierrez monitors traffic from 60 video cameras at the tunnel control center on Thursday, June 19, 2014. All tunnel operators are also firefighters trained to respond to an accident inside the 2.5 mile long tunnel.
Loren Holmes
LOREN HOLMES / Alaska Dispatch One of two specially designed firefighting trucks stationed at the entrances to the tunnel, each equipped with both tires and rail attachments, which allow it to travel faster through the tunnel. June 19, 2014
Loren Holmes

Fourteen years ago, the $80 million Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel opened for the public to drive cars, motor homes and trucks hauling fishing boats between Portage and Whittier. Despite a toll-free tunnel the first year, the state overestimated tunnel traffic, and its financial prospects seemed questionable. But more than a decade later, traffic through North America's longest tunnel has finally picked up to the point the state is earning a profit.

Facility manager Gordon Burton credits the uptick in traffic to Alaska's slow but steady acceptance of the one-of-a-kind tunnel. He said it took time for people to accept the tolls, which range from $10 to $300, depending on the mode of transportation. About 83 percent of the vehicles taking the 2.5-mile journey are "Class A," largely passenger vehicles not pulling a trailer, according to the Department of Transportation. As expected, May through September brings the highest revenue as fisherman, boaters and tourists flock to Prince William Sound.

Last year, the tunnel brought in more than $1.7 million, just $200,000 less than its peak in 2005. Traffic has ramped up from 172,986 trips in 2001 to 234,738 in 2010 -- a 36 percent jump. Tunnel revenue backs the maintenance of the tunnel, pays to clear snow and help train every tunnel employee to become a certified firefighter, said Burton.

The unique passage wasn't always so popular.

"At first, people were a little resistant," Burton said. "Even after a year of no tolls, people still weren't sold. We initially saw a dip in traffic but then it came back up."

Despite the high cost of taking the train to Whittier, people missed the nostalgia of it, and Alaskans were unfamiliar with paying tolls for any road. Whittier residents feared that easy access would bring crowds and chaos.

"The town wasn't ready for it," said Charlie Eldridge, a Whitter resident since 1991. "We didn't have a lot of businesses and we had no public restrooms."

In the fall of 2000, Whittier residents expected their bathrooms to be overrun, parking lots to be full and traffic to be snarled once the tunnel opened. But then-tunnel manager Greg Hall told the Anchorage Daily News that far fewer people than projected used the $80 million tunnel. Hall said Whittier didn't have enough money to promote the unique tunnel well, and doubts persisted about whether the tolls would stifle growth.

But by 2003, the tunnel was making $1.2 million in revenue annually. And, as Whittier has always done, the town adapted to change.

The town before the tunnel

The tunnel is still relatively young, considering the area's rich history. Long before statehood, Alaska Natives hunted and gathered in the vicinity. Miners and prospectors traveled Portage Pass in hope of striking gold. Then, in 1914, the Alaska Railroad began exploring ways to get to what is now known as Whittier. Some said railroad access would provide a shortcut to a deep-water port, an idea that wasn't a reality until World War II.

In 1941, on the brink of U.S. entry into World War II, it was believed that Whittier was less vulnerable than the Aleutian Islands, which were occupied by Japan in 1943. Whittier was harder for Japanese submarines to get to and the town's less-than-ideal weather was used as a defense mechanism. By 1943, a railroad tunnel was complete and Whittier, full of military personnel, had changed.

But by the 1950s, the military pulled out. By the 1960s, the Alaska Railroad Corp. began offering shuttle service between Portage and Whittier. People could drive onto flatcars, get off at Whittier and drive onto ferries heading across the Sound.

More and more people began flowing into the town, causing the Department of Transportation to consider other options of getting through the corridor.

"It was a huge thing," resident Wendy Hudson said of the tunnel opening. "You used to have to pay so much money to get into town. I mean it was a really, really big thing."

An everyday part of life

Eldridge remembers life before the tunnel and is frustrated that Whittier and its residents don't benefit much from it. A few new businesses have opened, he said, but mainly the town is just more crowded. Like many locals, he uses the tunnel on a regular basis.

"I use it two or three times a week," said Eldridge. "We all have to go to the doctor, buy groceries, buy gas and sometimes it's just to go get dinner in Girdwood."

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, more than 20 people sat parked in line waiting for their turn to drive through. Unlike most tunnels in the Lower 48, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is one lane. Depending on when drivers arrive, one could wait 30 minutes for traffic to move. When traffic slows from October to May, there are just 16 openings each way daily, with the tunnel closed from 10:45 p.m. to 7 a.m.

During the summer, most people don't seem to mind a brief wait. Nearly everyone towing a boat on Wednesday stood outside, inspecting them, making sure everything was ready when they arrived at the harbor, where business picked up after the tunnel opened.

The tunnel has created jobs too. Burton said many of the tunnel workers live in Whittier, and a few commute from Girdwood and Anchorage.

According to Burton, the tunnel is also a point of mystery, surrounded by urban legend. Eight safe rooms stocked with emergency supplies and a good ventilation system line the tunnel but some locals have other theories about them.

"It is actually kind of funny," Burton said, chuckling. "Some people think that those are actually elevators that lead to a secret military sub-base, but if that is true, I have never seen them."

And although the tunnel seems to be an everyday part of life, there is much more to it than most people will ever see or know. For example: It was built to withstand 140 mph winds and avalanches -- which it has done on several occasions. And it also has several ATVs and two specialized fire trucks that can attach to the rails, making it possible for them to move forward and backward quickly.

"If we have a fire in the tunnel, (they) are our best and most immediate and quickest response," said Burton, standing beside their small training course next to the tunnel. "There is some site-specific stuff in our training. Most firefighters aren't (used to) dealing with a tunnel."

He said most staff members are jacks of all trades.

'Brains of the operation'

In the tunnel's control center, located in a small office space next to the toll booths, one man stared intently at a large array of screens connected to 60 security camera feeds.

"This is the brains of the operation where everything takes place," said Burton, pointing to the man watching the screen.

Beyond emergency readiness, Burton said his workers sometimes have to help people who don't figure out they suffer from claustrophobia until halfway through the tunnel, when they choose to stop. Others travelers run out of gas, requiring tunnel personnel to bring them a gas can to get them on their way -- and traffic moving again.

That movement isn't speedy, with vehicles traveling 25 mph, but after about six minutes of driving, there is light at the end of the tunnel -- every single time.

Reach Megan Edge at megan@alaskadisptach.com.

 


By MEGAN EDGE
megan@alaskadispatch.com