Alaska editorial: Anchorage port costs are statewide concern

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

The Anchorage port expansion has a major problem, an engineering report released Nov. 9 announced. It’s uncertain how much money will be required to fix it, and that uncertainty should be of interest to Fairbanksans.

Many of the materials shipped to Fairbanks come through the Anchorage port. Everyone has an interest in keeping the cost of fixing the port to minimum so it doesn’t inflate the cost of living and doing business here anymore than is absolutely necessary.

Our state lawmakers, local elected officials and business leaders should keep a close eye on any proposed solutions to the mess.

And what a mess it is.

The well-known problems with the original construction technique might be fixable, but the project’s underlying design is flawed, according to a summary of the 2,200-page report from CH2M Hill. The expansion doesn’t meet standards for structural safety, the international engineering company concluded.

The port’s dock is being expanded by pounding a series of steel plates into Cook Inlet and filling in behind them with earth. The idea is to create a wall high enough to allow large ships to moor.

The steel plates have interlocking slots along the length of their edges, so they form a tough, continuous barrier. Long wings of the plates, extending perpendicularly from the oceanfront wall, are embedded in the back-filled soil. This firmly anchors the wall and divides the back-filled soil into stable cells. The system, both simple and strong, has been used for decades around Alaska and beyond. Interior residents can see an example on the Tanana River’s south bank at Nenana, just upstream from the Parks Highway bridge.

But the height of the Anchorage port expansion made it a much different customer, CH2M Hill said. The problematic wall sections range from 63 feet to 89 feet high, it said.

“The taller the structure (from the underwater mud line to the top of the sheetpile wall), the more the structure weighs, and therefore the greater the loads,” the summary states.

The loads create trouble.

“With the exception of the Dry Barge Berth, all other structures are deficient in the normal operating condition,” the report said of the port area. “Thus, it is not unexpected that these structures fail to meet all seismic standards.”

This exceptionally bad news compounds the troubles for an already-troubled project. When the original sheet piles were being installed, some bulged and didn’t go in straight. The problem, it appears, is that the piles were driven by equipment on land rather than a ship. Some sheet piles also hit large rocks as they were driven.

At least some of these problems have been fixed. New sheet piles were driven successfully on one section of the wall.

The design flaw is much more challenging. No one seems to have any immediate solutions.

About $300 million has been spent on the project to date, all from state and federal funds. The Municipality of Anchorage, which owns the port, still has $133 million of such money set aside for it, including the $50 million from a state general obligation bond Alaska voters approved Nov. 6.

At a presentation Nov. 9, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan said the project likely will need hundreds of millions of dollars more.

That should make everyone in Fairbanks sit up and pay attention. That money will have to come from somewhere — if not federal or state grants, then through higher dock fees.

Alaska needs this expanded port. The work must be wrapped up in the most efficient manner possible, because we’re all covering the bill one way or another, either as taxpayers or customers.

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