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Politicians point fingers in port “boondoggle”

By Emily Carlson 1:58 PM December 13, 2013

More then a decade after the Municipality of Anchorage launched plans to repair and renovate the Port of Anchorage, the original work is still not completed, and much of the completed construction may need to be replaced.

ANCHORAGE – Three years after construction came to a halt at the Port of Anchorage, the multi-million dollar expansion project has yet to resume and costs continue to rise.

Most of the consumer goods bought and sold in Alaska come through the port, but the 52-year-old facility is in dire need of repair. More then a decade after the Municipality of Anchorage launched plans to repair and renovate the facility, the original work is still not completed, and much of the completed construction may need to be replaced.

So what happened?

Cook Inlet tugboat Captain Katrina Anderson is still using the same docks her father did — The original docks, built in 1961.

“The Port of Anchorage has kind of lived its lifespan,” she said. “It’s in need of repair.”

Anderson questioned why the port expansion remains unfinished. It’s been 12 years since the project began, and cost estimates now exceed $1 billion. Sen. Mark Begich — former Anchorage mayor – blames the federal government.

“When I became mayor, I got stuck with this weird arrangement, to be frank with you,” Begich said. “MARAD had never done a port development project ever. Ever, ever.”

MARAD, the federal maritime administration, is an obscure arm of the Department of Transportation. The agency signed a contract with the municipality in 2003, just before Begich took office as mayor.

A 2013 audit by the Office of the Inspector General blames MARAD for poor planning, unreliable cost estimates and ignoring federal contract laws at the Port of Anchorage.

“The contractors they hired also probably did not have the sufficient requirements and experience to do a job like this,” said Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan.

The municipality blames MARAD and Integrated Concepts and Research Corporation, the company contracted by the maritime agency to manage the project.

Three out of four new sections of the port were improperly installed, twisted and bent just months after construction. The municipality is currently suing the contractor, the design firm and the consultant behind the project.

“Essentially, we didn’t feel we got the value for the money spent and so we’re harmed by that and that’s why we’re in court,” Sullivan said.

Some engineers said the design for port expansion never should have been approved in the first place; several begged the municipality to reconsider. One penned a letter warning the design would result in catastrophic failure, but none would speak on camera.

Cook Inletkeeper Bob Shavelson, a longtime critic of the expansion project, said many naysayers didn’t speak up because of fear of the then-port director, former Gov. Bill Sheffield.

“Mr. Sheffield was politically untouchable and people didn’t want to challenge his assertions,” Shavelson said.  “When he was port director he was very good at hiding inconvenient facts.”

Shavelson, executive director of a nonprofit watchdog group, said engineers who disagreed with the design or Sheffield’s justification for the massive project were reluctant to speak out in fear for their jobs.

“They’re reluctant because they get blackballed and won’t have employment,” Shavelson said.

Shavelson said the former port director used his political muscle to sell the idea for the massive port expansion project. In 2002, Sheffield requested a schedule of cruise ships that stopped regularly at the Port of Anchorage in order to secure federal funding even though at the time, no cruise lines stopped regularly at the port.

While Sheffield denies any wrongdoing, he recognizes there were a host of problems tied to federal oversite of the project.

“I feel bad about it,” he said. “I think back, was there anything I could have done? But we weren’t in control of the project; the contractors weren’t allowed to talk to port.”

He blames faulty construction for the problems with the parts of the dock already completed.

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

Construction at the port stopped in 2010, and the municipality is searching for another contractor to finish the job. While blame piles up, the docks continue to rust.

More than $300 million in completed construction sits beneath the Cook Inlet waters, waiting to be fixed then finished.

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