ANCHORAGE - Congress may have pulled hundreds of millions in federal earmarks from two highly criticized Alaska bridge projects, but a major overhaul of the state's largest shipping hub is netting hefty resources from Washington enjoyed by no other port in the country.
In the past few years, longtime Alaska congressmen Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young have used their influence to steer a large pot of federal money into a project slated to double the size of the Port of Anchorage and replace its aging docks.
Port officials estimate that at least half of the $500 million cost will be covered by congressional earmarks and the departments of Defense, Transportation and Homeland Security. So far, the two Republican congressmen have helped move at least $120 million in earmarks to the project.
"We are trying to be creative in how we come up with the money to do this," Deputy Port Director Steve Ribuffo said. "So far, we've been lucky enough to stay on target with the plan."
Ports have been receiving millions from Washington for security required by the federal government since the Sept. 11 attacks and for routine dredging, but such robust federal assistance for an expansion is unusual, according to shipping industry experts.
U.S. shipping hubs normally fund development projects with local tax dollars and are increasingly turning to private investors, not the federal government, to finance such ventures, according to Patrick Burnson, executive editor of Logistics Management magazine, a monthly publication for transportation executives.
"It's rare, but refreshing," Burnson said of the project. "Ports have been begging the federal government for similar funding."
But critics of earmarks say that even if a project is worthwhile, they should compete equally for funds rather than relying on the seniority and influence wielded by members of Congress.
"There are acute needs across the country in ports where we are not providing adequate security or letting congestion build up. And now we're redirecting millions, not to one of country's busiest ports, but to Anchorage, Alaska?" said Steve Ellis, with Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It just shows what can happen when you have the right people controlling the levers of power."
Money for the port project is a small fraction of the billions in federal funding Alaska garners each year. In 2005, the federal government spent $9.2 billion in Alaska. That's about $14,000 per capita, or almost twice the national average, and "easily the highest among the 50 states," according to a January report by the state's Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
But federal money isn't the only extra boost for the project coming from Alaska's congressional delegation.
With Young's help, the federal Maritime Administration, or MARAD, has shepherded the project through what is normally a sluggish environmental permitting process in record time, industry experts said.
The permits, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are allowing the port to create 135 acres of new land along the waterfront by emptying truckloads of dirt and gravel into an area used by salmon and a diminishing population of beluga whales. The whales are up for consideration on the endangered species list in April.
As part of the Department of Transportation, MARAD promotes marine commerce and education for maritime workers, but has never directed resources into supervising a port expansion, according to Aaron Ellis, spokesman for the American Association of Port Authorities.
"They've always been an important resource for our ports, but Anchorage is something special and different," Ellis said from the lobbying group's Alexandria, Va. office. "I don't yet know to what extent we might play a part in helping other member ports gain access to this as well."
MARAD officials said the agency is poised to provide similar assistance to more ports as part of its new focus on enhancing freight mobility and reducing congestion to accommodate military deployments.
"Anchorage was just the first to come to us," said the agency's administrator, Sean Connaughton. "Given our experience in Anchorage we would like to build on that and work with ports in the Lower 48 to provide the same services."
In the late 1990s, the 47-year-old port was headed for a relatively modest upgrade costing $80 million to $100 million, according to documents from the municipality of Anchorage. But Director Bill Sheffield, a well-connected former Alaska governor, scrapped that plan for something much larger after he took over in May 2001.
About 90 percent of the state's consumer goods arrive at the port each year from Washington state and Asia. Large container ships belly up to the docks two or three times each week to disgorge an array of cargo, from guns and snowmobiles to fruits and cosmetics.
The port handles roughly 5 million tons of goods each year, making it one of the smaller mid-size ports in America, according to the port association. In addition, roughly two dozen Army deployments have gone through the port in the last several years to support troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to port officials.
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