Anchorage gets federal OK to start work on massive Port of Alaska modernization project

Construction crews at the Don Young Port of Alaska on Wednesday began work on the next phase of the massive port modernization project, after the Municipality of Anchorage received a long-awaited federal environmental approval that unlocks tens of millions of dollars in grant funding.

In late April, an unexpected delay in the completion of the environmental review threatened to halt plans for the summer construction season. The holdup left the port burning through cash under a $97.5 million construction contract as crews and equipment sat idle at the facility for weeks.

But that final approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, or MARAD, arrived Tuesday, allowing work on the North Extension Stabilization phase one to proceed, according to city officials.

The $68.7 million federal grant that MARAD awarded the city in 2022 is now secure, along with another $68.7 million in a state match, “so really it’s a $137.4 million win,” Deputy Municipal Manager Kolby Hickel said.

That means the city narrowly avoided facing a choice of whether to forfeit the grant money in order to keep the port modernization project on schedule. (City officials in May had quickly approved a contingency funding plan, in case the review didn’t come through in time.)

MARAD has not responded to a request for comment.

It’s not yet clear exactly how much money the port lost on idle crews and equipment because the amount will be negotiated between the contractor, Manson Construction, and the city, Port Director Steve Ribuffo said. But it will end up costing just a fraction of the total grant amount, likely in the range of a few million or less, he said.


Port officials have estimated the total cost of the project is somewhere between $1.8 billion and $2.2 billion.

Fixing past mistakes

Mayor Dave Bronson and a group of top city officials on Wednesday afternoon donned neon yellow and orange vests and drove out to the construction site at the port’s north end, where work was beginning.

A single excavator was digging out land from behind the deteriorating sheet pile wall that hugs the north extension’s shore.

On the water nearby, three red Manson Construction cranes mounted on barges were staged, not yet in use. But soon, the cranes will be operating around the clock in an effort to make up for time lost, Hickel said.

The wall was constructed during a failed expansion of the port in the early 2000s that has left the north extension’s large swath of land unstable — an inconspicuous hazard that could liquefy and block the cargo terminals’ navigation channel in the event of another large earthquake.

Phase one of stabilization will take out around half of the sheet pile wall.

Ribuffo said that most of the land pressing against the wall must first be dug out — about 1.3 million cubic yards of material, according to project documents — before the sheet pile wall can be demolished. Crews will use a vibratory hammer to remove the pieces of sheet piling, which are interlocked like a jigsaw puzzle that stretches between the water and shore.

Some sheets are 90 feet long but weren’t driven deep enough into the Bootlegger Cove clay and glacial drift that underlie the gravel and silt seabed, Ribuffo said.

On Wednesday, an enormous pile of rock lay across the northern edge of the construction site, where officials walked out toward the edge of the shore to observe the crane barges.

The armor rock will be used to build a new, stable shore situated farther east, Ribuffo said.

North of the construction, Ribuffo pointed out a large pile of contorted steel sheets that were removed years ago from the failing wall.

More delays possible

The Port Modernization Program has been designed to occur in five phases to rebuild and repair the port. The city is aiming to complete the entire project in 2035.

As part of the program, construction of the petroleum and cement terminal and a new administrative building was recently finished.

City officials say the first phase of the North Extension Stabilization needs to be largely complete before work to replace the port’s two cargo terminals can begin. Work on the first terminal is slated to begin next summer.

Despite the delay, “there’s still a reasonable possibility that we will deliver this project completely on time and budget,” said Jim Jager, the port’s spokesman.

But it’s possible there will be more delays, Ribuffo and Jager acknowledged.

“We’re trying to avoid beluga season,” Ribuffo said, because when the whales swim into the area to feed later in summer, “we have to stop all waterside work.”

Four whale observation stations dot the coast, from one atop an orange shipping container north of the port’s extension and south to one near Point Woronzof, where observers will monitor inlet waters for whales all the way to Fire Island.

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at