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Alaska Railroad extension project gets underway despite opposition

Environmentalists opposed work clearing wetlands and woods

Posted: May 31, 2013 - 12:11am

WASILLA — A 32-mile stretch of wooded area and wetlands is being cleared to make way for a rail line extension project in Southcentral Alaska that environmental groups tried unsuccessfully to block.

The $88 million project will provide an Alaska Railroad extension line from the port at Point MacKenzie to Houston, where minerals and other bulk goods can be transported more cheaply to the Interior.

Work is taking place in six segments between the port and the original rail line. The tracks could be set down next summer, and the project’s completion date is expected in 2016.

Mat-Su Borough officials say more money might be needed from the state Legislature as the rail extension moves forward.

“Our state is young, we need investment in transportation infrastructure, and that’s what this is,” Mat-Su Public Affairs Director Patty Sullivan told KTUU-TV. “Ports require roads, sea and rail to function properly.”

Port MacKenzie is a deep-water port, with a draft dock of 60 feet at low tide that requires no dredging.

Project supporters say it is an ideal shipping destination for valuable minerals such as copper, coal and limestone. The extension line also should shorten the travel distance by up to 140 miles.

“There’s this saying that minerals are transportation,” Sullivan said. “You need low-cost transportation to make them profitable.”

But project critics say it is expensive and unnecessary, and is based on uncertain future economic developments such as coal or ore from mines that open up along the corridor to Fairbanks.

Cook Inletkeeper, Sierra Club and Alaska Survival tried to halt the project. They say the rail line will destroy important salmon-rearing habitat by altering a large area of wetlands.

The permit granted by the Army Corps of Engineers allows for the filling in of 96 acres of wetlands. A federal judge denied an injunction to block the project.

Sullivan said previously that project planners have made an “overreaching effort” to make sure that the environment is protected.

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