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Alaska grapples with Canadian opposition to requirement for U.S. steel in new ferry dock

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 6, 2015

JUNEAU -- Gov. Bill Walker met Tuesday with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in Washington, D.C., trying to head off a trade battle so a new Alaska ferry dock can be built in Canada.

But others have different goals and are intent on challenging or defending the U.S. Buy America Act that requires U.S. steel be used in the construction of Federal Highway Administration-funded projects, like the dock Alaska wants to rebuild in Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

Tuesday's meeting "went well," said Patricia Eckert, associate director of Alaska's Office of International Trade, but she and other state officials were not willing to say a solution to the standoff was near, or even possible.

Some Prince Rupert officials who support the dock have warned the dispute could lead to the project's cancellation, but the project got a new chance to stay alive when Alaska Department of Transportation officials extended Tuesday's deadline for contractors to submit construction bids by two weeks.

"The postponement is really an opportunity to see if there's a solution out there," Eckert said.

Canadians who already resent the Buy America Act, including B.C. Premier Christy Clark, have expressed displeasure that a law they consider American protectionism is now being enforced outside the U.S.

Alaska DOT Deputy Commissioner Ruben Yost said it's rare for a federally funded transportation project to actually be in a foreign country.

"It's probably not completely unheard of because we have a border with Canada and a border with Mexico, but it's the only one I'm aware of," he said.

The state ferry system link to Prince Rupert is important to U.S. travelers and businesses shipping cargo vans, he said.

When the DOT and the Prince Rupert Port Authority last year signed a 50-year lease for the site, on which Alaska wants to build a new dock to replace a badly deteriorated old one, no one anticipated the Buy America Act would even become an issue, Yost said.

Gov. Walker has rejected Canadian calls for him to seek a waiver of Buy America provisions, his office said.

The dock would likely be built by Canadian contractors and has been supported by Prince Rupert officials who like having thousands of visitors delivered to their city by the ferry system. And Alaska DOT officials say owning the new dock in Prince Rupert will reduce costs for the ferry system as well.

Canadian federal officials have said an infrequently used Canadian law that was aimed at preventing foreign countries from imposing their economic sanctions in Canada could be used to block the dock project. That law was previously used to prevent U.S. trade sanctions on Cuba from being applied in Canada.

But Prince Rupert officials have been trying to extricate the ferry terminal project from the trade battle.

"The traffic to Prince Rupert resulting from the Alaskan Marine Ferry is a significant economic generator to our community," John Farrell, president of the Prince Rupert and District Chamber of Commerce, told the city's Northern View newspaper.

"The Chamber remains confident the governments of our two nations will be able to mediate their differences to ensure the long term viability of the proposed new terminal," he said.

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