Anchorage Assembly set to make major decisions on future costs and designs at Port of Alaska

The Anchorage Assembly is set to vote this week on tariff revisions and construction designs for the Port of Alaska.

The port, a critical piece of infrastructure in the northwest corner of Anchorage, handles a huge share of goods and critical materials that Alaskans all over the state depend on, from groceries and construction material to cement and aviation fuel. The dock terminals are aged and badly eroded, and municipal officials have struggled for years to redevelop them amid warnings that one well-placed earthquake or environmental disaster could easily bring it down.

But in recent years, there has been steady progress financing repairs and moving forward on staged improvements, including the completion of a cement and petroleum terminal that came online earlier this year.

This week, amid an Assembly agenda so packed it is scheduled to span two days, municipal officials will vote on the design for the upgraded port, a multiyear project called the Port of Alaska Modernization Project.

“It feels to me like we’re now close, like we’re there, practically, so that to me is a huge development,” Assembly Chair Christopher Constant said Friday after a work session looking at different proposals set to go to a vote.

The major issue is how big to build the two terminals that receive cargo ships from commercial vessels. A number of officials, including Mayor Dave Bronson and the port’s leadership, have pushed for an expanded concept that would build uniformly wide terminals capable of accommodating larger cranes for offloading cargo and a wider variety of ships in the decades ahead.

But that design is more expensive than more modest alternatives, and has received pushback from some members of the Assembly, cargo companies that use the facility, and Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has lobbied hard for federal dollars to support the project.


Though the Assembly could pick a definitive design next week that sets a course for construction, several members seem poised to try having their cake and eating it too, by revising the proposed measure to split the decision.

Vice Chair Meg Zaletel said during the Friday work session she intends to introduce an amended version of the ordinance that would begin work on the first phase of the terminal upgrades, and put off a decision about whether to invest in the expanded option in the project’s second phase until after the Assembly has been showed detailed cost projections prepared by engineers in the next couple months, and can weigh a substantive cost-benefit analysis as it decides how to proceed.

“We have a path now to get the information we need,” said Constant, who plans on supporting the revised version of the ordinance currently in the works.

Another measure before Assembly members would revise the tariff fees collected from port clients for the next seven years, in order to pay off debts already taken on to pay for the modernization project.

“This rate structure implements a surcharge fee based on tonnage for cement and cargo, and a per-barrel charge for petroleum products across the Port of Alaska dock,” according to a memorandum from the Bronson administration on the ordinance.

The tariff increase was endorsed by the Anchorage Port Commission last fall after receiving public input.

The Assembly meets Tuesday and Wednesday.

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.