WASILLA -- Sorry, Mat-Su commuters. The Alaska Railroad won't be starting a test run of scheduled rail service between the Valley and Anchorage any time soon.
Railroad officials in February confirmed they were evaluating possible off-season weekday passenger rail service from the Valley to Ship Creek and back, pegged to a seemingly plum property acquisition in the center of Wasilla along the tracks and the Parks Highway.
But along with a difficult financial climate, the railroad has realized that the Wasilla location comes with steep challenges, including a sight-blocking curve and potential gridlock in one of the busiest intersections in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Then there’s the likelihood that waiting train cars could block a road leading to the platform -- and the drivers trying to get on that very same train.
"These are just some of the little details that made us step back and say, 'OK, we’re not ready to launch this baby yet,'" said Paul Farnsworth, the railroad’s facilities director, himself a Valley resident. “We still think it’s a good idea, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done."
Farnsworth came before the Wasilla City Council in late June to discuss a bid to use the railroad’s newly purchased 30,000-square-foot former Kenai Supply building near the Parks Highway for retail, office, storage and railroad uses. The railroad’s request for a conditional-use permit goes before the city planning commission Aug. 12.The railroad hopes to lease 16,000 square feet of space and create more than 70 parking spaces.
Retail tenants aren’t being recruited with passenger rail service in mind, Farnsworth said Thursday. "We don’t have a timeline on scheduled service."
Word of the much-anticipated new route -- dubbed the Wasilla Turn -- emerged in February. Rail officials talked about a three-year, trial service that could begin as early as mid-September, though they cautioned the public that any plans were preliminary. A railroad board briefing scheduled for late February was canceled.
The railroad is in the midst of hard times financially, with unexpected declines in refined petroleum and coal export traffic exacerbated by the closure of the Flint Hills refinery in North Pole.
The problems at Wasilla, however, add a new twist to the commuter-rail challenge.
Farnsworth said the crossing on the property is on a curve, so any obstructions on the northbound track in particular wouldn’t come into sight until they were too close. Getting cars safely in and out of the property would also be an issue, he said. It’s likely the best access point will come off the Palmer-Wasilla Highway extension at Home Depot, where there’s a signal.
Figuring all that out will take a long-range strategic plan that wraps in the city, the state transportation department and maybe the Mat-Su Borough, Farnsworth said.
Then there’s the issue of the access road blocked by the train.
Say there are five 80-foot train cars sitting at the platform. That’s 400 feet of train.
"It closes the road people trying to get to the train are driving in on," Farnsworth said. “People can’t get to the train that’s leaving in 10 minutes, they’re going to park on the other side and try to run across the mainline track.”
That's a nonstarter, he said. Resolving the problem could mean tearing down one of the buildings on the property, but it will also have to be part of the larger solution that needs to be worked out before trial scheduled service could start.
Valley residents have agitated for some kind of rail link for years.
Jim Sykes, a Mat-Su Assembly member who's been tracking rail prospects for a few decades, pointed to standing-room-only crowds on the most popular morning and evening Valley Mover bus runs from the Valley into Anchorage.
"I think people would be interested in it," Sykes said, adding other locations could work if the Wasilla one doesn't. "We just haven't gotten to the test yet."
Wasilla Mayor Verne Rupright's bio says he supports "a commuter rail system as an alternative means of transportation and a key to bringing jobs and employees to Wasilla."
But another Assembly member, Steve Colligan, said the issues at the Wasilla property are part of a larger set of questions about commuter rail service that still need answers.
Colligan, who sits on a joint Anchorage-Mat-Su transportation working group, said more research needs to be done on everything from what users really want -- and would be willing to pay for -- to the role played by private-sector operations like Valley Mover, which has expanded its routes. There are also security concerns for passengers riding the train to work at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Colligan said.
"Those are all things that need to be kind of vetted out," he said.