ANCHORAGE - Former Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom is one of the biggest proponents of a railroad line to Port MacKenzie, which could increase competition with the Anchorage port.
But Mystrom believes the Matanuska-Susitna Borough rail development will be good for the city, creating business and jobs.
Less than three miles across Knik Arm from Anchorage, Port MacKenzie has a deep water dock, barge dock and ferry terminal, but it doesn't get much ship traffic. A big ship docked there earlier this month to demonstrate it could be loaded with coal.
The Anchorage Daily News reports Mystrom told a business group in Anchorage on Friday that a rail line from the main Alaska Railroad would give Mat-Su's 11-year-old port a dramatic boost.
Coal, limestone, lead, zinc, copper and other minerals could be mined and then hauled by rail to Port MacKenzie, where it would be loaded on ships. That would cut 147 miles off the existing rail route to the port in Seward, he said.
Mystrom says neither Anchorage nor Seward can offer the staging area of Port MacKenzie - 14 square miles of industrially zoned land, with no homes on it.
The Port of Anchorage is the primary Alaska port for consumer goods coming in on container ships. Almost everything residents eat, wear or drive comes through it.
Mat-Su wants to become a regional port for mineral exports and is interested in fuel storage and in receiving materials such as the steel for the state's planned natural gas pipeline, Mystrom said.
Mystrom made $85,000 as a paid promoter for the rail project. Although his role ended in April, he continues to talk up its merits.
The state put $35 million toward the rail expansion this year. Gov. Sean Parnell recently vetoed another $22 million that had been approved by the Legislature but says he supports the expansion, which is expected to cost up to $250 million.
The Alaska Railroad has applied to the federal Surface Transportation Board for a license to build the rail line. A draft environmental impact statement analyzed the need as well as three possible routes connecting to the main line near Willow, Houston or east of Big Lake.
Last month in written comments to the board, Anchorage Port Director Bill Sheffield challenged some of the assertions put forth by backers and raised concerns about Port MacKenzie as a year-round port.
Sheffield, the former head of the Alaska Railroad, said there likely wouldn't be enough business at Port MacKenzie to justify permanent rail crews, so locomotives and rail cars would have to be serviced in Anchorage or Fairbanks.
When Mat-Su officials saw his six-page letter on file with the federal government, they were livid.
"I wish to express my deep concern over Port Director Bill Sheffield's recent wayward actions toward the Port MacKenzie Rail Extension," Mat-Su Borough Mayor Talis Colberg wrote to Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan.
Sullivan assured Mat-Su officials he supported the rail project.
Mystrom said he only recently learned that Sheffield had concerns.
"Anchorage is the most important port in Alaska and always will be," he said.