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Proposed rail extension receives wetlands permit

Posted: September 13, 2012 - 12:08am

ANCHORAGE — A proposed 36-mile Alaska Railroad extension to Port McKenzie in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough has cleared a regulatory hurdle.

The Army Corps of Engineers on Monday issued a permit allowing the railroad to fill in nearly 96 acres of wetlands for the line that will start near Houston and run south to the port across Cook Inlet from Anchorage.

The project is a joint effort between the state-owned railroad and the Mat-Su Borough. Borough transportation manager Brad Sworts said Wednesday the permit is an important step that will allow contractor Bristol Construction Services to complete the first five miles of embankment work north of the port.

“We’re expecting they’ll finish mid-next summer,” he said. The entire line is projected to be complete in 2016.

Critics say the rail line and the port itself are expensive propositions based on speculative commercial prospects.

“This port is causing more trouble that it ever would be worth,” said Grace Whedbee of Big Lake, whose property is near the proposed extension. “You don’t need a railroad if you don’t need a port.”

The borough has promoted the port and rail line as conduit for bulk material export. That could be coal or ore from mines that open up along the corridor to Fairbanks, Sworts said. There are also import possibilities.

“Anything of bulky nature — construction supplies, it could be bringing in heavy construction equipment, it could be pipe for the natural gas pipeline that they’re talking about building,” he said.

The projected cost of the state-funded rail line is $272 million. A contract for work on a section of the north end, Sworts said, could be issued in a couple of weeks.

The total footprint for the line is 758.5 acres, said Ben Soiseth of the Army Corps office in Fairbanks. Four streams will be crossed with full-span bridges that will not require structures be placed in moving water, he said.

The wetlands permit requires compensatory mitigation. The railroad will buy credits in two privately owned mitigation banks, reserving those wetlands in perpetuity, as its wetlands mitigation, Soiseth said. Credits will be purchased from the Su-Knik and the Pioneer Reserve mitigations banks. Both are in the borough.

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