Municipality Has Port Study, Holding Until After Bond Vote

Bundled into the bond proposition included on the Nov. 6 election ballot, voters will find $50 million for the “Port of Anchorage Intermodal Expansion Project.” It’s the largest request on the list. But voters won’t have much information on the project before they make their decision. That’s because a report detailing problems with the bungled upgrade to the 50-plus-year-old port won’t come out until after the election.

The Municipality has had a draft of the port study since mid-October. But they don’t plan on sharing it with the public until Nov. 9. Mayor Dan Sullivan maintains he’s signed a non-disclosure agreement that doesn’t allow him to release the report or talk about it. During Mayor Sullivan’s weekly press briefing last week, Anchorage Daily News Reporter Lisa Demer asked Mayor Sullivan to discuss the report. She pointed out that, officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration didn’t say the study’s findings on construction problems had to be withheld.

Demer: So, I’m wondering if you’ve been able to rethink that at all and if we could maybe find out what the conclusion was of that study before the bond vote on the general election ballot that has port bonds included. Sullivan: No.”

The “Port of Anchorage Expansion Project” has been in the works for more than a decade. The Municipality of Anchorage partnered with the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration on the project. In 2003, construction got underway, then stalled around 2009 after serious construction problems came to light. Cost estimates skyrocketed. Upwards of 300 million public dollars have been spent on the project so far. The Municipality is seeking $50 million on the Nov. 6 ballot for the port expansion. Bob Shavelson with the watchdog group Cook Inlet Keeper and a longtime critic of the project, says voters should know what the bond money would be used for before they cast their ballots.

“Well, the public absolutely has a right to know how $50 million in public money is going to be spent,” Shavelson said.

Shavelson says Cook Inlet Keeper started looking into the port project in 2007 because of concerns the design could hurt Cook Inlet beluga whale and salmon populations. With fewer federal dollars flowing into the state from Congress, Shavelson worries tax payers will bear the burden of the flawed project and questions where funds to finish the job will come from.

“The Port of Anchorage is vitally important to everyone in Alaska. And now we’re in a situation where you can’t build this thing half out. You’ve got to build the entire thing. And I will not be surprised when the report comes out if they say we need another billion dollars or more to finish this on top of the $50 million they get from the bond package, which I bet, is just to finish fixing the problems they had with the design,” Shavelson said.

Shavelson is speculating. Staff with the Mayor’s office say they can’t put a price tag on the project until the final reports are out in February. At the Anchorage Assembly’s weekly meeting Tuesday, Oct, 23, Mayor Sullivan and the Assembly went into executive session to discuss potential litigation regarding the port of Anchorage – Assembly Member Jennifer Johnston:

Johnston: I move to go into an executive session to receive legal advice and strategies regarding potential litigation involving the port of Anchorage. Traini: I second that. Hall: Any objection? Seeing, hearing none I’m going to move that we go into executive session.”

The executive session lasted more than an hour. The Assembly sealed information from it for five years. Assembly member Dick Traini said he would have rather have had it sealed 10 years.

Sullivan recently sent the Anchorage Assembly a memo asking for 2 million additional dollars to cover fees for attorneys related to port litigation. That is in addition to $500,000 already set aside to cover attorney fees. Mayor Sullivan’s office was contacted repeatedly for this story, but he did not make himself available for an interview. His spokesperson, Lindsey Whitt, says the municipality has a draft of the report, but Sullivan has not yet read it. The Anchorage Assembly and the city’s Geotechnical Advisory Commission are scheduled to be briefed on the port study at a Nov. 9 work session – three days after the election.

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Daysha Eaton, KMXT - Kodiak
Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.