It’s a hypothetical scenario, but one made somewhat less so by ongoing woes and ballooning cost estimates to fix the shipping terminal that supplies the majority of food, fuel and durable goods to the state: What would happen if the Port of Alaska simply failed?
It’s not a pretty picture. “Depending where you are in the state, you will run out of food in six to 10 days,” said Jim Jager, the port’s external affairs director. “For fuel, we’re a little better off ... but we ordinarily don’t have more than a week’s worth of food in-state."
In this imagined disaster, Alaskans wouldn’t likely starve, of course. In the absence of Anchorage’s port, food and fuel shipments would be diverted as best as possible to alternate ports, such as Seward or Valdez. But none have similar capacity or connectivity to high-volume transport avenues, and upgrading them would, like upgrading the Port of Alaska, be costly and time-consuming. It would take more time and fuel to get goods to Alaskans, and that would mean higher prices.
In the most talked-about alternate port scenario, Seward stands out with its rail connection as the best option to replace Anchorage. But the roads and rail system into Seward are ill-equipped to handle the volume necessary to support Alaska commerce — and, notably, remains far more vulnerable to tsunamis than Anchorage. Ports in Seward and Valdez were obliterated by the tsunami that resulted from the 1964 earthquake.
So failing to fix the Port of Alaska isn’t a realistic option. Knowing that, what’s our best way forward? Recent estimates of costs to fix issues with the port’s docks and modernize its infrastructure have run as high as almost $2 billion — but that number encompasses several different projects at the port, Jager said, which are of varying degrees of urgency and priority to the port’s different users.
In a way, that’s good news. While a plan for the port must be definitive and not piecemeal, it doesn’t mean we have to commit $2 billion up front. Priority should be given to projects most critical to the port’s continued operation, with others aimed at modernizing facilities and expanding infrastructure following in later phases.
The municipality of Anchorage has focused its “ask” of the Legislature on the most pressing problem at the port, its compromised docks. For years, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has made $290 million to repair the docks and replace severely corroded pilings his only capital request to the state. That’s appropriate — the docks are integral to our state’s commerce. There are other federal requirements, Jager said, such as a Department of Defense classification as a “strategic port” that requires 2,200 feet of container dock space. That’s well more than Alaska’s in-state needs require, so it makes sense to enlist the help of Alaska’s delegation in Washington, D.C., to ensure federal help in keeping the port compliant with Defense Department standards — if such a designation remains critical to U.S. needs.
Whoever ends up paying for it, a better plan for the future of Anchorage’s port is critical. For too long, the municipality, state and federal officials have avoided the difficult conversation about how best to bring the port from its 1961 origins into the 21st century. Like Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, it is vital to keeping Alaska’s economy running and supplying Alaskans with food, fuel, raw materials and finished goods. Continuing to punt on dock replacements and facilities upgrades is handicapping our state. Alaska’s representatives at the state and federal levels should work with the municipality to determine what the port needs, and how to pay for it. It’s too important a facility to fall further into disrepair.
The views expressed here are those of the Anchorage Daily News, as expressed by its editorial board, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Current editorial board members are Ryan Binkley, Andy Pennington, Julia O’Malley, Tom Hewitt and Andrew Jensen. To submit a piece for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser.