City considers new strategy for troubled Port of Anchorage project

The city is moving forward with another attempt to revamp the Port of Anchorage, this time downsizing the scope of the project and abandoning flawed construction to the north.

More than 50 individuals tied to the beleaguered port construction project will meet in Anchorage on Monday for a weeklong "charrette," or planning session, that city officials say will result in the selection of three possible design plans. CH2M Hill, the engineering firm that has taken over management of the project, will present a preferred design by November, said Lindsey Whitt, spokesperson for Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan.

Port engineer Todd Cowles said the city expects to abandon the under-construction dock to the north. Instead, it will focus on rehabilitating the current 53-year-old structure.

Back in 2003, when the project first got underway, the city's plans for the port called for more expansion.

"It was a different plan," Cowles said. "It was a much larger program than what we anticipate having to design for with the funding available."

The city had chosen an unconventional design known as Open Cell Sheet Pile, patented by PND Engineers Inc. Crews hammered in long sheets of steel that connected to one another and formed a series of U-shapes. The front of the steel cells would operate as the new dock face and the area behind would be filled in with gravel -- essentially creating new land.

In 2009, construction on the port halted when inspections revealed some steel sheets had already bent, jammed and separated, threatening the structure's integrity. At that point, it was about one-third built.


The U.S. Maritime Administration, initially responsible for the port project, commissioned a $2.2 million, yearlong study. CH2M Hill completed the study and reported the problems with the port expansion extended beyond its construction, down to its design.

A federal audit concluded that MARAD failed to do its job. It did not establish itself as the lead agency or verify the project's costs, the audit said. Between 2003 and 2011 cost estimates ballooned from $211 million to $1 billion, the audit said.

So far, the city has spent about $300 million in federal, state and municipal funds on the construction project. The funds covered the new, now obsolete, dock sections as well as a new rail line, roads, utilities, drainage systems and new acreage.

Mayor Sullivan initiated two lawsuits against MARAD and engineering and construction firms to recover funds spent.

In the meantime, Cowles said, the city has spent millions of dollars on upkeep for the existing port. The port is a traditional dock on pilings -- or posts -- but the pilings are corroding. Their surface is rusted and slimy to the touch, he said.

In 2012, the city repaired 25 piles for $835,000. It repaired 46 in 2013 at a cost of about $1.3 million and 100 in 2014 for more than $2.6 million.

"We've kind of increased the number until we have a new plan that guides us a little better on the expansion project," Cowles said.

The city does not have a cost estimate to finish the port construction, Cowles said. It once had about $439 million in funds earmarked. About $130 million of that is left, according to a letter from Sullivan to state legislators dated March 2014.

"So we want to put those dollars to best first use," Cowles said in a recent media tour of the port.

"And we'll be going to Juneau for the remainder," Whitt said.

Cowles said the new project will likely entail using the traditional pile design and reconstructing the port in phases so it does not disrupt current operations. About 90 percent of Alaska's consumer imports flow through Anchorage's port.

The project may be phased to the south. The northern extension may undergo some renovations to ease transportation access, he said.

"We may actually have to remove and stabilize some of it," Cowles said about the northern dock. "But that's what we've got to figure out."

MARAD has been removed from the project.

Assembly member Patrick Flynn served on a port committee formed in 2010 to focus on construction issues.

In a phone interview Thursday, he offered a few words of advice on the continuing port project: "Keep it simple; keep it as inexpensive as possible and get it done."

On Friday, the Anchorage Assembly is holding a special meeting to discuss the ongoing port lawsuits.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.