FAIRBANKS - Federal regulators have approved a plan to extend the Alaska Railroad 80 miles to provide year-around freight access to military training grounds
After months of review, the Surface Transportation Board said Tuesday it is satisfied with the plan to extend service from Eielson Air Force Base to Delta and nearby Fort Greely.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports the entire rail extension could cost about $700 million. The Department of Defense is contributing $100 million for a half-mile bridge across the Tanana River.
"We're thrilled with the approval," railroad chairman John Binkley said.
The bridge project would require stabilization work along the northern riverbank, a side project local officials said last year would benefit nearby Salcha by providing flood control.
Environmental questions included the likelihood of moose strikes and disruption of salmon fisheries and wetlands.
The board's written decision highlights the railroad's plan to develop moose habitat away from the track's 200-foot-wide right of way and to build the track in a way that makes it easy for moose to retreat from oncoming trains. The board said the plan gives the corporation wiggle room to design bridges and culverts to minimize impact to fisheries.
Transportation board member Francis Mulvey wrote in dissent that he felt the state-owned railroad's project fell outside federal lawmakers' general directive to broadly support new railroad construction projects. He noted Delta Junction has only 1,000 people and called it "speculative" to suggest, as the railroad had done, an expanded line would benefit the area through better transit.
Mulvey said while Congress' instructions might apply to privately owned railroad operators' plans, the Alaska railroad's construction is generally heavily subsidized.
Binkley called the concern misplaced, saying construction of transcontinental rail lines in the 1860s spurred economic development across much of the country.
"It's an economic engine," he said.
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