ANCHORAGE — The largest economic development project under way in Anchorage has stalled under a cloud of construction troubles and ballooning costs.
The completion date for the massive dock replacement project at the Port of Anchorage has been pushed back to 2021 from a target of 2011 set before major construction began.
The price tag, which was $360 million as of 2005, has escalated to $1 billion.
Some engineers are questioning whether the new dock can even be built as designed. Much of the work done in 2010 involved dismantling construction from just a year earlier. Numerous sheets of steel that were planted in Cook Inlet as part of the dock expansion have been ripped up and now lie stacked in twisted and warped piles at the port.
A city advisory commission is urging an independent review of “all aspects of the design, including the ... constructability.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, who was Anchorage mayor when the dock project got going, has been a big supporter over the years. Now he has concerns, too.
“I am troubled by reports I have received of complications during this year’s construction season and of the potential financial ramifications for federal taxpayers and for other entities which have contributed funding for the expansion project,” the senator wrote in a Dec. 15 letter to the federal Maritime Administration, which is overseeing the project.
Among other things, he sought an accounting of the spending and an explanation of what went wrong with the construction.
Ken Privratsky recently retired as an executive with Horizon Lines Inc., one of the two major shippers that dock at the port, and has been following the project for years.
“What’s becoming evident is we’ve got a real mess on our hands,” he said.
Port officials and shippers say the old dock, parts of which date to before the 1964 earthquake, is deteriorating and expensive to maintain. The effort to replace it began more than a decade ago.
Longtime port director Bill Sheffield and former governor pushed for the current design, which has been controversial within Anchorage’s engineering community from the get-go.
The city decided not to build a traditional dock on pilings but instead put its faith behind a bulkhead system, which extends the shore into the sea. The design is a patented technique called Open Cell Sheet Pile.
Bit by bit, crews are trying to erect a wall of steel in Knik Arm that, if it’s all built, will extend the port into the Inlet as well as north and south — 1.5 miles of steel in all, nearly the length of two Delaney Park Strips.
The design consists of a series of horseshoe-shaped cells made of steel sheet pile, with gravel fill behind the dock face within each cell. Long tail walls reach back toward shore to secure the structure.
Ultimately, workers will create 135 acres of new land in the Inlet.
All that new dock would accommodate bigger ships than currently call at Anchorage, and more of them. The project includes staging areas for the military, a rail line, roads, a new port administration building and security checkpoints onshore. Initially, it also was supposed to add cruise ship and passenger ferry terminals, but those are no longer part of the plan.
The project has been plagued by defects in structure and slow progress.
The steel piles are supposed to hook one into the next down the entire length, creating a strong, interlocked structure. Instead, dozens of steel sheets have separated near where they are supposed to be firmly planted into the seabed. These separated sheets buckle, twist and bend, inspections have found. The damaged steel is being pulled up and must be replaced.
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