A newly-constituted Assembly Port committee held its first meeting on Tuesday, May 18. Prior to that, there were three stories in the local paper discussing the subject:
- The first, which ran on May 10, provided an overview of last month’s work session.
- The second, which ran on May 18, focused on the growth of the “Port MacKenzie” shoal (not my description – that came from someone who knows Cook Inlet hydrology far better than me).
- The third, which also ran on May 18, describes the immediate problem faced by TOTE that attracted my attention back in April.
The three members able to attend our meeting spent almost two hours accompanying port and project staff on a tour of the project, ranging nearly to the Elmendorf-Fort Richardson border to view various locations of aggregate materials used for fill. We also observed a vibratory hammer in use to ensure the fill materials settled according to engineering specifications. Interesting points here; first, according to project staff in-ground monitors of the portions already completed are proving the new docks more stable than models predicted. That’s good news. Second, we also noted construction personnel spraying the working hammer with cool water, quickly evaporating to steam, in an effort to keep the equipment from overheating. It seems that was a hard lesson learned from last year’s work.
From there we convened a working meeting with more port & project personnel as well as representatives from TOTE, Horizon, Aircraft Service International Group (think of them as the airport gas station, which ships considerable amounts of jet fuel via the port) and Flint Hills Resources. That gave us the opportunity to discuss the topics I mentioned in my previous post, to wit:
- Discussion of engineering challenges and seismic stability. As alluded to above I came away somewhat encouraged on this point. ICRC officials, who are the project staff, discussed third-party review and confirmation of their engineering processes and offered to provide a list of similarly-sized projects that employed the open-cell sheet pile technology used in this project. Stakeholder representatives had no misgivings on the design front and Horizon’s folks said they have the same sort of dock in Dutch Harbor, which has held up for many years.
- Update on project time lines and financing plans. This part was not so encouraging. The “North Extension” slated to provide temporary berths to TOTE and Horizon as other phases of the project advance were originally slated for completion as early as this year but now isn’t expected to be ready in 2012 (for TOTE) and 2014 (for Horizon). Port officials believe they have sufficient funds to ensure these two essential elements are completed and offered to provide an updated financial plan, which we expect to receive later this month.
- Discussion of migrating steamship operations to the [North Extension] and attendant costs. To explain, TOTE & Horizon have terminals located quite close to their existing berths. When they move to what I refer to as their “vacation homes” the berths will be roughly one mile further away, which increases the costs of trucking trailers and containers between ships and terminals. While no one had exact answers on this subject, TOTE made a rough prediction of an additional $1 million per year in operational cost and Horizon estimated the need for six additional trucks and truck drivers.
- Practicality of maintaining operations at the [North Extension] in case of future funding delays. A couple things to consider here; first, TOTE feels more dredging than originally planned is necessary to ensure the safe turning of their vessels as Knik Arm grows more shallow to the north. Second, funding questions mean the timing for replacement of existing berths is undefined. Even under the best-case scenario it appears there will be a period of several years after TOTE returns to a berth near their current location but Horizon remains at their “vacation home.” Because both carriers dock on the same days (Sundays & Tuesdays) their truck traffic will then intersect, which creates another ground operation complication.
In sum, I feel the discussion yielded good news, bad news and more questions. The good news is my increased comfort with the engineering and the likelihood that existing operations can be maintained with the completion of the North Extension. The bad news revolves around funding and the very real possibility that existing operations will end up at their “vacation homes” far longer than expected, which increases shipping costs and, ultimately, the cost of products upon which most of Alaska depends. The questions stem from dredging issues and concerns. To that end I spoke with the Army Corps of Engineers last week and am working to set up a committee meeting with them during the week of June 7. That will give us a chance to better understand the challenges of maintaining shipping operations in upper Cook Inlet, and discuss the related concerns.
With that, I welcome your questions and comments!