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As costs increase, port problems persist

By Emily Carlson 10:52 AM December 11, 2013

Multi-million dollar "boondoggle" involves more than 90 percent of goods in Alaska

ANCHORAGE – It’s a mega-sized boondoggle that could affect the price of almost everything you buy in Alaska.

The Port of Anchorage expansion project began more than a decade ago. Since then, the cost to taxpayers has more than quadrupled. Much of the work already done must be replaced. Right now, work is at a standstill, but with every day that goes by, costs increase.

The port — the place that takes in almost everything Alaskans eat and use on a daily basis — continues to rust with age and worry the people who work there.

Katrina Anderson grew up on the water of Cook Inlet. Today, she cruises the water as a tugboat captain.

“We’re really small, but we’re all the guts and power and glory,” she said.

She said chances are whatever food you buy at the grocery store started its journey at the port.

Ninety percent of the things you buy on a daily basis get here by boat. But the place they come in is old, rusting and in disrepair. Fifty-three years of wear and tear are taking their toll on the port complex.

“The Port of Anchorage has kind of lived its life span, it’s in need of repair,” Anderson said. “The old part of the dock definitely needs to be replaced.”

Twelve years ago, the Municipality of Anchorage started with a simple plan: Replace the old parts with new parts.

The price tag? $85 million.

But that simple remodel took a wild turn when former Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield took the wheel. Sheffield’s grand plan would be the biggest public works project in state history.

His scheme started with building 135 acres of land out into Cook Inlet, more than tripling the size of the current port.

Sheffield claimed the expansion would bring billions of dollars in new business into Alaska; adding room for shippers, the military, Coast Guard and cruise ships.

The plan for economic growth would cost $146 million dollars and provide more jobs, money and tourism.

“Build it and they will come,” said Cook Inletkeeper Bob Shavelson. “You wave your wand over it, you have these prospects, there’s going to be all these jobs and increased revenues … lot of people get starry-eyed and they get lost.”

Shavelson said he’s been speaking out against the grand expansion plan for years. The problem was, nobody would listen.

“We did everything we could to elevate what we considered were relevant facts and science, and those just got brushed under the rug and politics took over ,” he said.

Shavelson said what happened at the port is a glaring example of government wasting taxpayer money, and some municipal officials couldn’t agree more.

“It’s some of the things that make taxpayers shake their head and say, ‘There’s government at work,’ and it’s in a negative connotation,” said Anchorage Assemblyman Paul Honeman.

Taxpayers should be angry, Honeman said. He said the grand idea pitched by port officials is a flop.

“It didn’t happen and as a result we got a boondoggle,” he said.

Twelve years after it began, the port expansion project is just 30 percent complete. Meanwhile, more than $300 million has been dumped into construction.

A construction and engineering firm was recently brought in to find out what went wrong, and called the expansion work “majorly defective,” “deficient” and “not up to standards.” 

So what happened, and who is at fault?

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong,” Sheffield said. “You gotta have a contractor that can install it properly.”

Is it the United States Maritime Administration — the federal agency leading the project — or perhaps PNC Engineering and their design?

For people like Anderson, who make their livelihood on the water at the port, blame is a touchy topic.

Anderson said all she wants is for Alaska’s most important man-made resource to be safe and durable.

“Whatever means that has to take,” she said. “It’s just really important for the infrastructure of Alaska that we maintain our lifeline.”

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