HOUSTON — Alaskans spent more than $180 million on a rail line to the struggling Mat-Su port before the money ran out $125 million short of completion and with just a few miles of track laid.
Now the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is making it clear that the only users of miles of trackless gravel rail grade — many of them hunters this time of year — aren't welcome.
Responding to a spate of vandalism and reported theft, borough officials recently issued a notice that roughly 25 miles of trackless grade built for the unfinished Port MacKenzie Rail Extension remain closed to travel.
A borough announcement Thursday came with a stern warning: "Responsible residents do not trespass."
The unfinished rail project left behind a tempting ribbon of gravel that looks like a new road cutting west past Big Lake to the mostly vacant port across largely undeveloped farmland and forest but only three-quarters done with a 7-mile gap in the middle.
Local officials say the grade is attracting trespassers and thieves as people ram gates, steal chains and locks, and create deep ruts.
The borough has hired an unarmed private security guard funded by a $10,000 contract with Securitas to patrol the length of the line.
"No trespassing" signs have always marked the grade, but locals say it overlaps with a network of trails around Big Lake and they use it anyway.
For some, the access ban adds insult to injury: a rail megaproject that could have provided jobs at the port but instead drained millions in state dollars and then fizzled — just like the borough's failed plan to operate a passenger ferry, another multimillion-dollar flop with no results.
Now they can't even use what many consider an abandoned rail corridor that provides easy access to prime recreation areas.
A number of people complained about encountering the security guard in angry comments on Facebook this week.
What is the borough protecting? one asked. "A wasted project that never got finished?"
Another noted the $13,000 he paid in borough property taxes. "I say I'll ride on it if I want."
Russel Tucker lives near Houston's high school, where he can access the rail grade from his back door. Tucker said Thursday he'd previously driven his pickup for miles atop the embankment and all the gates were wide open.
"So now we have this nice rail bed that's sitting out there, that goes to nowhere and nothing is going to happen with," he said. "Now they don't want the people that hunt out there, that have hunted that area for years, now they don't want us out there."
Borough officials counter that they're trying to block criminal activity, and also protect the rail grade itself from damage while it sits, unused and unmaintained, as they try to find more funding.
Over the winter, someone stole copper wire from the only active tenant at the port: Alutiiq LLC.
More recently, homeowners at Horseshoe Lake and West Papoose Lake areas have reported break-ins and thefts, said Dan Mayfield, who represents the area on the borough Assembly.
Mayfield said he's fielded more than 10 complaints. Others say people are hunting on their property without permission.
"The criminal activity is the sore point with most people who are concerned about this," he said. "Breaking and entering, stealing stuff, littering adjacent properties … people are hearing shooting they consider to be in their backyard."
The damage to gates and barriers is unrelenting, officials say. At the port, somebody in a pickup shoved aside heavy concrete barriers blocking the line within 24 hours of their installation.
Borough code compliance officers wrote a citation for one person caught cutting a lock so recently it was still warm from the tool used.
"The willful disregard of this Mat-Su Borough property is amazing," said Jude Bilafer, the borough's capital works director.
Bilafer countered any contention the rail line is abandoned, citing ongoing clearing and survey work. He also rejected claims circulating on social media that the security officer was firing automatic weapons while on duty.
"No, there are no Mat-Su personnel discharging weapons," Bilafer said. "We're going to be the big bad government no matter what we do. And it's unfortunate because this project, it is still in major need of money, but this project has the potential to bring significant economic growth to the Valley."
No borough tax dollars paid for the project, officials say. Instead, rail construction funding came from state appropriations and a state general obligation bond.
Bilafer called it "ironic" that now borough taxpayers are paying for something on the rail line: the new chains, locks, gates and security officer hired to patrol it.
Alaska Railroad spokesman Tim Sullivan, who said the railroad built the grade but it belongs to the borough, called the line not abandoned but "a hundred million dollars away from being done."
The only track actually laid on the length of the project — 1.8 miles — runs from next to the Parks Highway to a crossing at Millers Reach Road in Houston.
A recently repaired gate blocked access to the rail grade along the road this week.
The railroad's track and signals extended toward the highway on one side. On the other, the broad gravel expanse bisected autumn-yellow stands of birch stretching toward the looming towers of the Alaska Intertie.
A fresh, muddy four-wheeler trail snaked past the concrete barrier next to a new orange sign that read, "No shooting, no hunting. Active construction zone. Workers and equipment in the area."
Above that sign was a bigger white one — "Your State Dollars Putting Alaskans To Work" — that put the cost of the 3.5-mile segment alone at $6 million.