Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Anchorage Port Project Faces Delays, Snags, and Shrinking Scope

The cost to fully complete a major dock replacement project at the Port of Anchorage in Alaska has ballooned from about $150 million in 2002 to about $1.2 billion with a pushed-back completion date from 2011 to 2021.

Proponents of the plan cite the age of the port's current docks, some dating to well before the Alaskan earthquake of 1964, and the fact that 85 to 90 percent of imported goods coming into the state move through Anchorage.

The full plan would see the replacement of the existing dock, the creation of 135 acres of new port land, two new barge berths and three ship berths and a rail extension for cargo and military use. Preliminary work on the project began in 2003, with actual construction starting in 2004. The first phase of the project, including the rail extension, was completed in 2006 and Phase II work began in 2007. Estimates now suggest that the full plan would require an additional $922 million in funds to complete.

City official now say that cost overruns, delays, and the shrinking availability of funds have made the full project untenable.

Port of Anchorage director Bill Sheffield released a scaled-back version of the full construction plan on May 6. Sheffield's new proposal calls for 65 acres of new port land to be created, the construction of two barge berths and one new ship berth. Construction on the scaled-back plan would begin in 2013 and run through 2016. It would also require an additional $397 million in funds on top of the $265 million already spent. Under a 2003 agreement, the port committed to raising the funds for the project while the federal Maritime Administration would oversee construction.

However, there is concern that even the scaled-back plan may be impossible to complete as envisioned.

More than a decade ago, the port began talking about replacing the aging dock at the Anchorage port.

The full plan was first proposed in 2002 with a price tag of $150 million and called for the creation of 85 acres of new port land, using a construction technique called Open Cell Sheet Pile instead of a traditional deck-on-pilings design. The scope of the project was later expanded to create 135 acres of new land and wharfage at a 2005 cost of about $360 million.

The open cell technique drives half-inch thick, 20-inch-wide by 90-foot-long interlocking steel sheets about a dozen feet into the seabed to construct large horseshoe-shaped bulkheads rising out of the water. These palisade-like structures extend about 400 feet from the shore. Once a bulkhead is complete, the voids behind the bulkheads are backfilled to create a surface onto which decking can be built. Where the arches of the side-by-side bulkheads meet, piles are driven to flatten out the waterfront face of the new structure and provide anchor points for vessel fenders.

When the open cell plan was first proposed by Sheffield, who was appointed to the port position in 2001, it was argued that the open cell technique would cut the cost of the project from an estimated $230 million for a traditional deck-on-piling construction, to about $150 million for the open cell project.

By the end of the 2009 construction season, more than 60 of the large horseshoe-shaped cells had been constructed. However, during the 2009 construction season, contractors driving the steel plates into the seabed encountered problems. Subsequent underwater inspections found that nearly half of the cells had steel sheets that were bent, twisted or pulled away from their neighboring sheets' interlocking mechanism.

According to inspection reports, almost a quarter of the roughly 2,600 sheets examined were damaged. An additional 5,400 sheets that have already been installed await inspection.

Many of the damaged sheets were replaced or repaired and replaced during the 2010 construction season. In fact, no new sheets were installed in 2010, with the entire season taken up largely by repairs to damaged sheets and further inspections. The new contractor, which took over in 2010 and pre-drilled the seabed before hammering in the sheets, has reported no additional problems with the sheet installations.

So far, no one has declared a reason for the structural problems that occurred in 2009, but the port has said that it is investigating. There have also been calls for an outside investigation of the structural problems, as well as urging by a community advisory commission to have an independent review of the entire design and construction aspects of the project.

Sheffield and other city officials, according to the Anchorage Daily News, which has reported on the port project in detail, have insisted that taxpayers will not be tapped to finish the project.

A large portion of the funds for the port project to date have come from federal earmarks, with the state contributing $10 million to $20 million a year. The city has put in $49 million for the project and has also approved the port borrowing an additional $75 million that will be wrapped into a revenue bond to be issued when the project is complete.

But the port is still far short of the nearly $400 million still needed to fund the scaled-back version of the project. Sheffield recently told the Anchorage Daily News that he had been in touch with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and hopes to get leftover federal stimulus funds for the project.

Alaskan politics have also affected the project. The late-2008 defeat of long-serving Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, well known for his ability to channel huge amounts of federal dollars to Alaska projects, seriously damaged the state's ability to win earmarks in Congress. In addition, the rise of anti-pork sentiments in Congress in recent years, coupled with the recent Congressional attitude of fiscal restraint, has also made obtaining federal funds for the port project more difficult.

Sheffield, while proposing a scaled-back version of the plan, contends that he will be able to raise the $700 million needed to finish the project as originally envisioned. Sheffield told the Anchorage Daily News that he has been able to assemble $50 million to $60 million a year by a combination of federal earmarks, loans, port revenue, and state/federal grants.