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Anchorage port expansion is a mess; Port Mackenzie doesn't have to be

My mother taught me it’s not polite to say “I told you so.” But when our government officials waste hundreds of millions of our taxpayer dollars -- and jeopardize a vital conduit for statewide commerce along the way -- it’s time to push good manners aside.

The Port of Anchorage is a critical component of statewide commerce. Yet the current debacle over design flaws and funding shortfalls was entirely foreseeable. In fact, with the help of many others, we predicted it. We begged the same public officials now wringing their hands over the project’s failures to challenge Bill Sheffield’s mis-management at the Port, to no avail.

Cook Inletkeeper first took notice of the Port expansion in 2004. At the time, we shared the concerns of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. E.P.A., and a brave whistle-blower in the National Marine Fisheries Service that the project would destroy important salmon and beluga whale habitat. As we looked further, however, we soon came to understand the grandiose expansion proposed by Port Director Bill Sheffield was a construction design and public financing fairy tale. Specifically, we found there was no projected need for a project as large as Sheffield envisioned, that the cost projections were wrong, that there were serious unresolved questions about the engineering design (and specifically about the design’s potential instability during an earthquake), and that there was no reasonable way to pay for the project’s construction and maintenance with port revenues.

So, we naively thought if we brought our facts and science forward, the government officials we entrust with our public dollars would make the right decisions. But we didn’t appreciate how utterly untouchable Bill Sheffield was in the political arena. Sheffield smartly greased both sides of the political isle by holding political fund-raising events for elected officials who would later help him build his dream port. Despite countless letters from our organization and members of the public, and despite the unanswered questions raised by seismic experts and local engineers -- all detailing the fiscal and design issues now plaguing the project -- Bill Sheffield remained the Emperor who had no clothes.

Like any massive debacle, there’s ample blame to go around. George Wuerch appointed Sheffield Port Director and let him run with his pie-in-the-sky vision; Mark Begich was the mayor when the most integral design and funding decisions were made; the Port Commission and the Anchorage Assembly went along without requesting any pertinent information; and PND Engineering provided a design unfit for the unique circumstances in Knik Arm. And of course the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), which had never before overseen a port construction project, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which ignored repeated challenges to the information it used to authorize the port expansion, both deserve failing grades for this disaster.

So now we need to do three things. First, recognize the Port of Anchorage is vital to statewide commerce and work through a transparent, open process to design, fund and build a responsible port expansion that will serve Alaskans for generations to come.

Second, we need to hold accountable those who have wasted hundreds of millions of public dollars. There’s no way to avoid the mistakes of the past until those who blatantly ignored the fiscal and design realities at the port expansion are called to task. In fact, there remain so many unresolved questions, Congress should investigate. How could, for example, MARAD hire ICRC -- a freshly-created subsidiary of Koniag Native Corporation -- as project manager when it had no experience managing an engineering project of the Port’s size and complexity? Could it have anything to do with the fact that a long-time aide to Rep. Don Young -- Jim Lexo -- was CEO at ICRC? Or that Sheffield held campaign fund-raisers for Young at his home?

Finally, we cannot keep our heads in the sand and ignore similar boondoggles occurring right around us. And we need look no further than across Knik Arm to Port MacKenzie to see the next money pit unfolding before our eyes.

Port MacKenzie is a small finger dock jutting into the turbulent waters of Cook Inlet. It’s seen a handful of ship visits since its construction, and its remote location combined with extreme tides and currents make it largely unsuitable for safe and regular vessel traffic. And like the Port of Anchorage, it relies on the same open-cell sheet pile design that proves problematic in Upper Cook Inlet, it experienced significant problems during construction, and the sheet pile is already degrading from the scouring effects of Knik Arm’s abrasive silts.

But now, a small but influential group of bureaucrats and politically-connected business people in the Mat Su Borough are pressing ahead with a new railroad spur to Port MacKenzie. These are the same folks who spent over $80 million in public funding on an ice-breaking ferry they cannot use and which they now hope to sell to a South Pacific nation.

As Yogi Berra famously said, it’s like déjà vu all over again. Like the Port of Anchorage, there’s no demonstrated need for the Port MacKenzie rail spur, the projected $300 million capital costs will surely balloon far beyond that, and there’s no plan to pay for the high costs needed to operate and maintain 32 miles of new rail in Alaska (not to mention the costs for ongoing dredging, sheet pile replacement, etc.) And on top of everything else, the project will dam and divert waters supporting hundreds of thousands of acres of Mat Su salmon habitat, where fish runs increasingly see restrictions and closures.

Alaska wouldn’t be Alaska without the vision of bold thinkers with can-do attitudes who were willing to take risks. But as our state labors to fund teachers and firefighters and roads, it’s time to pull back the curtain on public project spending and take a clear-eyed look at what we need and what we can afford. This legislative session, the Mat Su Borough will be seeking another $130 million for its railroad to the hinterlands of Port Mackenzie. Make sure to ask your legislator what customers will it serve, how much will it cost in the end to construct, will it pay for itself, and if not, who’s going to pay to operate and maintain it.

Bob Shavelson is director of advocacy at Cook Inletkeeper, a public interest organization dedicated to protecting the Cook Inlet watershed and the life it sustains. Inletkeeper highlighted the problems with the Port of Anchorage at a time when they could have been fixed, and is working now to ensure the same debacle doesn’t occur again at Port MacKenzie.

The views expressed above are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.