Its centrality is reflected in the fact that the name of the municipally owned port was changed from Port of Anchorage to Port of Alaska in 2017.
While the city of Anchorage was damaged by the 1964 earthquake, the port says, “Upper Cook Inlet geography virtually eliminates tsunami danger, and the 26-foot-wave that inundated Homer Spit was reduced to a ripple by the time it reached Anchorage.” Once again during this year’s earthquake, the port suffered only minor cracking on its docks.
In 2017 the Port of Alaska handled about 3.5 million tons of cargo. About 1.6 million was containers, truck vans and flats, and 1.8 million tons were petroleum products. Most of the remainder was cement.
In addition to petroleum products being delivered by ship and barge, a pipeline system at the port connects it to Ted Stevens International Airport, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Tesoro Refinery in Nikiski. The port has 3.4 million barrels of fuel storage used to hold jet fuel, “JP-8” fuel used by the military, gasoline, heating oil and aviation gas utilized by small planes that are used widely in Alaska.
Valdez, at the end of the Trans Alaska Pipeline, handles nearly 10 times as much cargo as Anchorage, but nearly all of it is crude oil arriving from the North Slope through the Trans Alaska Pipeline System operated by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. to be loaded into tankers. Some refined product from Valdez is delivered to Anchorage.
At times, rail traffic to and from the port is particularly heavy. For example, the port just handled the shipment of 2,000 pieces of military equipment railed from Fairbanks for deployment.
Aviation gasoline and other refined products also are shipped between Anchorage and other ports by barge and pipeline.
The Alaska Railroad was damaged in the Nov. 30 earthquake in several locations, but repairs were made within days and freight and passenger service resumed last week.
Anchorage is served directly by two major liner carriers that connect with weekly services to and from the lower 48 through the port of Tacoma, Wash. TOTE Maritime Alaska operates two roll-on, roll-off vessels that carry truck trailers and other rolling stock between Tacoma and Anchorage, while Matson has three containerships that travel to Anchorage as well as the Alaska ports of Kodiak and Dutch Harbor.
All told, Alaska Railroad says it hauled 4.77 million tons of cargo in 2016, including — 22,606 cargo filled trailers and containers from Anchorage, Seward and Whittier as well as 42,860 hopper and tanker rail cars carrying gravel, coal and petroleum products.
Jager says the Port of Alaska faces several major challenges over the next decade or so.
First, the port “was built in 1960, so it’s built to 1960 shipping standards. Ships have gotten bigger and technologies have changed, and we haven’t kept up with that,” says Jager. “We’re pushing the limits of what we can handle.”
While the port is large enough for the amount of cargo moving through it, he says operators of tankers and bulkers, in particular, would like to be able to use larger ships that can draw more water than is possible today.
The second, a “more serious problem is that we’re old and corroding,” says Jager. “The engineers tell us that our piles have lost about 75 percent of their original thickness near the mud lines where we have an accelerated corrosion that is common in northern latitude ports.”
That corrosion problem is made even more complicated by the fact that the port is “built on very deep silt and experiences very fast currents and ice scarring,” says Jager.
He explains that Anchorage is essentially a river port — located where the Cook Inlet divides into Knik Arm and Turnagain Arm — and experiences tidal fluctuations of more than 40 feet. During the winter, the ice-clogged water around the docks becomes a “giant slushy” that pushes back and forth on the docks.
The port has put steel pile jackets on about half the 1,423 piles under the dock at the port so they still have their load-bearing capacity, but he says the piles are relatively short — only 60 to 70 feet long, while the port has determined they should probably be sunk to a depth of 135 to 188 feet.
Complicating the issue is work that was done at the north end of the port beginning in 2003, but then halted.
The idea behind that project, the so-called Port Intermodal Expansion Project, was that the port would construct a sheet pile dock while doubling the amount of dock at the port.
But Jager says a new section of dock built north of the existing port behind the sheet pile is unstable and “going to fail at some point. When it does fail, all the silt behind it and material behind it is going to flow out into the navigation channel and close down our north dock,” where TOTE ships now call.
Anchorage is suing the federal government over what it says was botched work. It is seeking $370 million in damages in a lawsuit being heard in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington. It claims the construction at the north end of the port was not properly overseen.
A 2010 inspection revealed “large scale damage and defective work,” the city said.
The litigation is far from over. A court order issued in August noted that “discovery has been ongoing for approximately four years. In that time, Anchorage has served 25 interrogatories and the government has made 12 separate document productions, consisting of 360,000 documents and over 2,300,000 pages. The parties have taken 28 depositions and will take another 30 depositions, as well as an unknown amount of expert depositions.”
“The expectation is we will have the trial date next September or October — in that area,” said Jager. If the port is successful in its lawsuit, he said the money will not generate additional money for the port but will be used to “dig out, remove and rehab the north extension.”
The port’s plan now is to rebuild the existing wharves on new piles while extending berths farther into Cook Inlet and adding land. The work at the north end and rebuilding the port is expected to cost “north of $1 billion,” said Jager.
Then the existing petroleum and cement berth would be demolished and new facilities built for TOTE and Matson Docks south of their existing location. Work would proceed gradually north, so that demolition and new construction would not interfere with the ongoing TOTE and Matson operations.
At the same time the work done at the north end of the port would be demolished and stabilized.
When the entire project was completed, the port would be “more or less the length of the existing dock. It will start about 400 yards south and it will be about 150 feet farther out … so that it’s in a deeper channel,” says Jager.
He says the plan also is to improve the wharf so that larger container cranes can be used. He says the container cranes at the Matson terminal today have a 38-foot gauge, but Matson would like the ability to replace them with 100-foot gauge cranes.
But he says because the Port of Alaska is a Department of Defense strategic port, the military wants it to maintain about 2,200 feet of dock in case there is a need to rapidly deploy. It also wants more robust construction to survive an earthquake since there is a lack of redundant ports.
“It’s more cost effective just to armor your one port and that armoring costs 15 percent more,” Jager explains.
The port has some money to begin construction, but will need to raise additional funds to fund the reconstruction of its docks.
“In the worst-case scenario, we could go out and revenue bond for the entire dock,” says Jager. The port plans to raise tariffs to help raise funds for the reconstruction of the port and is having meetings with stakeholders now about how much those tariffs will be raised.