Alaska railroad extension could solve political, economic issues

Posted: Tuesday, February 24, 2004

I t's an obscure note in history: Had any federal funds been left over from construction of the Panama Canal, they were to be assigned to Alaska railroad construction.

There were no funds left over, but the way I see it, there is a growing linkage between the Panama Canal and a rail connection between Alaska and the North American rail system.

The Panama Canal is becoming obsolete. A rail connection would bring the latest technology to a long-established transportation corridor that lacks only the infrastructure of a railroad fully able to carry containerized freight. Bringing all this into sharp focus is the current war on terrorism.

A recent report from Aegis Defense Services Ltd. on security in maritime transport brings starkly to light the wide range of opportunities for terrorists to utilize oceangoing vessels and containerized freight for delivering weapons or terrorists themselves.

I've read the report, and it's sobering.

In addition, foreign ownership of the Panama Canal, which needs billions of dollars in renovation and upgrades in order to handle the newest generation of tankers and cargo vessels, does not add assurance to our nation's economic well-being in a post 9/11 era.

The Aegis report expresses the concern that the next major terrorist attack could come by ship, by LNG tanker, by bulk carrier, container ship or so-called tramp freighter. It's not hard to see why this conclusion is drawn: the true owners of many freighters are difficult to determine, piracy is rampant in parts of Southeast Asia, and few shipping containers are individually inspected in American ports.

A freighter carrying ammonium nitrate, the type of fertilizer that was used in the Oklahoma City attack, could be detonated using a simple GPS-triggered device, closing the Panama Canal.

In 1947, a freighter carrying ammonium nitrate exploded in Galveston Bay, killing around 600 while destroying the entire port and the nearby town of Texas City.

An event of similar or even less destructive force would close the Panama Canal for weeks if not months. Besides exerting terror and loss of life, terrorist organizations can cripple entire economies with such an attack. The Aegis report makes the point that a 10-day strike along the West Coast last year caused our nation billions in lost trade and revenue.

I, and the Murkowski administration, are very optimistic about recent developments involving Alaskan natural gas and its transport to market, both in-state and outside Alaska.

These two factors underscore the importance of completing the last transcontinental railroad, in other words, connecting the Alaska Railroad with the Canadian National Railroad in British Columbia. The economic values of such a rail connection are numerous, from lowering the cost of building pipelines to opening new opportunities in winter tourism.

But I think there is an added component: national security.

Given the world's political climate, our nation desperately needs an alternative to the Panama Canal, and a railroad connecting the Alaskan ports of Seward, Whittier and Anchorage with the North American rail system could be part of that alternative.

A rail connection to the Lower 48 would be far more secure for no other reason that it will run far from areas targeted by terrorists. Railroads bring controlled access, and their very nature limits the amount of damage of even a well-planned attack.

There's a second factor in terms of national security: military access. A completed rail connection will allow the military a way to efficiently access our state through the heartland of North America.

When the first transcontinental railroad was completed, a major portion of its revenue came from shipping freight from Asia to Europe, because it saved time and losses from shipwrecks at the tip of South America.

Today's modern freighters have less to fear from inclement weather, but as much to fear from piracy and terrorism as did their 19th century forebears. A railroad from Alaska into British Columbia may be built on old technology, but the political and economic issues it will solve are very much in the 21st century.

• Sen. John J. Cowdery is a Republican and the Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

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