Mat-Su still strong amid weak economy

Posted: Monday, October 19, 2009

ANCHORAGE - While Alaska is feeling the effects of the down economy, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is deflecting some of the economic problems with a string of important projects.

Borough manager John Duffy says at the top of the list is construction of a $240 million, 1,536-bed medium-security correctional facility. The job is employing 350 workers.

The regional government will own the prison when it's complete but lease it to the state Department of Corrections. When operational, the prison will directly employ 450 people, plus many others in support services.

But it's not just prison construction that's booming. Port Mackenzie is also being expanded, with the construction of a road loop to make the unloading of trains more efficient if a rail extension is built. There also are plans for a barge unloading facility at the port.

And a new Cook Inlet ferry is expected to be christened in late January. The vessel is under construction in Ketchikan, and the hope is the ferry will cut commuting times for those headed to jobs in Anchorage.

The ferry is also important for smaller communities across Cook Inlet. It will cut the cost of moving people and supplies to the community of Tyonek, on Cook Inlet's west side, which is not far in distance but has no road access.

A connection with Tyonek is important for residents because there are several hundred millions of dollars of projects planned not far from the community, including large coal mine and hydroelectric and geothermal power projects.

On a more local level, the Mat-Su region has struggled to keep up with growing student populations and now has the second largest school district in the state, Duffy said. The construction catch-up has been almost on pace of one new school per year.

The newest, Su Valley High, is set to be completed in December, Duffy said.

There is also a great deal of state-funded road and highway work to help relieve congestion and improve infrastructure. It's long been a priority for the borough, but extremely important of late with rapid population growth in recent years.

"People moving in expect a certain level of highway infrastructure and congestion relief, so we're working through this, and we've had our growing pains," Duffy said.

Mat-Su's population in 2009 was estimated at about 82,500 and is expected to reach 102,700 by 2018. The borough has seen an average 4.5 percent population growth over the last 15 years.

The most important project of the borough's economic develop hopes is the proposed extension of the Alaska Railroad from the existing rail track to Port McKenzie.

The extension could provide a cheaper, more efficient outlet for minerals mined in interior parts of the state, said Dave Hansen, the borough's planning director. For example, it could cut an estimated $1 to $1.50 per ton from the cost of shipping coal for export markets from the Usibelli coal mine in Healy. Usibelli now ships coal through Seward.

It could also open up development of limestone deposits near Cantwell, and could lower costs for shipping equipment and materials for gas pipeline construction.

A federal draft environmental impact statement for the rail extension is expected soon, and final approval could come early next year, Hansen said. Depending on which route is selected, the rail extensions could be 25 miles to 40 miles, and costs could range from $200 million to $250 million.

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