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Federal appeals court allows railroad extension

Posted: November 29, 2012 - 12:00am

ANCHORAGE — Work on a railroad extension in Southcentral Alaska will move forward after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday reversed its earlier order to halt work.

The court lifted the stay on the Alaska Railroad’s extension project to Port MacKenzie in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

A three-judge panel of the court on Oct. 1 agreed with environmentalists, who argued they and the natural environment would suffer irreparable harm if the emergency order had not been issued to stop construction.

Attorneys for the petitioners — the Sierra Club, Alaska Survival and Cook Inletkeeper — had argued that an environmental review by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board was inadequate and that the board “merely parroted” the purpose and need for the project articulated by the Alaska Railroad Corp.

At the time, the court found there was a “serious question” as to whether the board complied with a federal environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act or NPEA, in determining the purpose and need of the extension.

“Upon further review of the record, the panel concluded that the Board’s ‘purpose and need’ statement complied with the act and that petitioners no longer raised ‘serious questions,’” the court wrote in Wednesday’s decision. An official opinion will follow later.

The court noted that further delay would prevent awarding construction contracts, postpone hiring and increase costs of the project — proponents saying by as much as $12 million.

“Because this project is funded largely with taxpayer dollars, these increase costs of construction .... will burden the public upon continued delay,” the court wrote.

Justices said since they have determined the Surface Transportation Board acted within the law, that agency and not the court should “balance the justifications of planned economic progress in improved rail service against the possibilities of environmental harm.”

Matanuska-Susitna Borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan welcomed the news.

“We’re very happy, and we knew the (Surface Transportation Board) had acted accordingly and had followed NEPA.”

Bob Shavelson, with Cook Inletkeeper, said there are already three tidewater ports in Southcentral Alaska.

“It doesn’t make sense to continue pouring hundreds of millions of public dollars into an unneeded project,” Shavelson said in a statement. “Port Mac’s business model rests on pie-in-the-sky assumptions, and Alaskans cannot afford another public funding disaster.”

Sullivan said Cook Inletkeeper is against development of any kind.

“If you can’t build a railroad in Alaska, where can you build one?” she said in an email to The Associated Press.

The Surface Transportation Board last November gave final approval to the railroad to build and operate about 35 miles of new rail line in the borough north of Anchorage. The proposed line would run from Port MacKenzie to near Houston.

The board said the proposed line would provide rail freight services between the port and Alaska’s Interior and said it also would support the port’s development as an export-import facility for intermodal and bulk-material resources.

In September, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit allowing the railroad to fill in nearly 96 acres of wetlands for the line.

Opponents have argued the project would open the door for shipping Alaska coal overseas, but they say that would come at the expense of local families, landowners and salmon fisheries.

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