Rural Alaskans rank port, harbor projects

Posted: Monday, November 29, 2010

ANCHORAGE - For the first time in at least two decades, funding requests for new and improved ports and harbors in rural Alaska will be collected onto one unified list of needed appropriations.

At this year's Alaska Regional Ports and Hubs Conference on Nov. 18, consulting firm Northern Economics released a grand list of projects, giving attendees the chance to prioritize them.

Now, they will have one list to present to the Congressional delegation and the state Legislature for funding.

This is a change from the status quo, as rural ports and harbors, save for those that are part of the Alaska Marine Highway System, are mostly not owned by the state and so are not funded through the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

As a speaker at the previous conference in 2008, Jeff Ottesen still recalls how brutally some of the other presenters lambasted the state DOT for not including such projects in its long-term transportation improvement plan.

"Throughout the day, we were getting pretty beat up," said Ottesen, the director of the department's Division of Program Development. "I think local governments feel like there's an unmet need out there, and if DOT's not advocating for them, then who is?"

The Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, known as STIP, lays out a litany of needed improvements to the state's surface transportation infrastructure (save for railroads, which are handled by the Alaska Railroad Corp.), including roadway improvements. A separate program exists for aviation infrastructure.

When Alaska's congressional delegation and state Legislature are asked to request funding for specific projects, they are handed these lists as a guide.

DOT typically doesn't account for rural ports and harbors in funding requests because, following an effort to roll back state ownership of regional port infrastructure in the 1980s, most are owned privately or by local and municipal governments.

The rollback occurred mostly due to financial concerns, Ottesen said.

"It was largely a financial decision by the Legislature at the time. That was when the price of oil had plunged quite dramatically, and the state was just looking to have less responsibility," he said.

Ports and harbors are generally funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with state and local match funds, or solely with the state and local funds, Roger Wetherell, a DOT spokesman, said in an e-mail.

The disparate nature of their ownership creates an atmosphere of competition between various communities, and undermines their ability to connect and become part of a grander maritime network, contended speakers at this year's conference.

"There should be coordinated efforts to try and fund projects, rather than a local government sponsor or someone else trying to obtain funding from a half-dozen different sources and none of the other sources know who the other players are," said Patrick Burden, president of Northern Economics.

Over a beer with other officials after the conference in 2008, Ottesen agreed to help the Denali Commission and the Alaska District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers develop a list, similar to the STIP, to help this disparate group of private and community owners request federal and state appropriations.

The plan is needed in part because the Arctic passage is becoming more viable as a cargo transportation and cruise ship route with sea ice melting, but generally, ports and harbors deteriorate over time like everything else, and need occasional maintenance, attendees contended.

Beyond that, by establishing a more efficient system of marine regional and sub-regional hubs, stakeholders stand to lower the cost of fuel transportation, a much-needed reprieve for communities dependent on gas for heat during the winter, said Patricia Opheen, chief of the Corps' engineering division.

"There's been some difficult dialogue going on among everyone, but particularly with the communities, to recognize that not every community is going to be a hub. So where are there communities where there are three communities that could be linked?" Opheen said.

Ultimately, the effort would ideally converge various modes of transportation, including roads, to maximize overall infrastructure efficiency, she said.

The state DOT, the Denali Commission and the Corps of Engineers hired Northern Economics, one of the state's most prolific consulting firms, to collect lists from each entity and put together a master list of proposed projects and regional marine transport hubs.

The entities surveyed communities and marine transport companies to find out what infrastructure they felt needed to be upgraded, and where the major regional hubs were.

"They identified projects based on their criteria. We, for the first time, have put together all of those projects into one list so that we can see if there's any overlap, or if there are gaps in the analysis," Burden said.

At this year's conference, attendees were split into groups based on region and handed a 19-page list of needed projects. The projects numbered in the hundreds, and ranged from harbor dredging to reconnaissance and feasibility studies. The groups were asked to decide what the most important criteria were for prioritizing projects for funding, and were asked to rank the top three projects they'd like to see funded.

After about 20 minutes, attendees were asked to switch tables, and the process started again. At the conclusion of the event, a recorder at each table stood and reported back on the findings of both rounds.

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