Governor orders new commuter rail study for Valley-Anchorage commuters

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Gov. Bill Walker on Tuesday kindled new life into the idea of commuter rail service between Anchorage and Wasilla by issuing an executive order, and thus establishing a nine-member advisory task force to look into the issue.

The order requires the task force to prepare reports and conclude its business by Oct. 1, 2019. Walker faces re-election in November of this year.

According to the order, Walker will appoint the nine-member task force, comprising the mayors of the affected communities: Anchorage, Wasilla, Palmer, Houston and the Mat-Su Borough. The task force would also have a representative from the city-state Anchorage transportation agency Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions and from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, as well as two public members.

A rail link between Wasilla and Anchorage has been studied many times over the years and has led to several lengthy reports that recommended a trial project. The governor’s executive order acknowledges the past work, and says that a rail link could save the state money on highway maintenance as well as improve environmental quality.

However, the order leaves it to the task force to provide specific information in its initial report, due on May 31, 2018, and final report, due Sept. 30, 2019.

Though in very early stages, the public thus far has mostly responded positively to the refreshed idea, with commuters on Tuesday commenting on the governor's move.

"Anything that would improve traffic between here and the Valley would be a great improvement," said one commuter headed from downtown back to the Wasilla area.

"It decreases the risk we take every day on the road itself," said another. "And, we can read books, listen to music, do whatever we want to do, as we're not on the road so much."

Proponents of the rail line cite environmental, safety and cost reduction benefits as major reasons for wanting a commuter rail line. Still, though, there's a long way to go, and some commented Tuesday that they worry new taxes might be implemented to fund the project; the plan would go through with extensive support, but would never actually gain traction amongst commuters; and that there simply haven't been enough concrete details made public, particularly given that cost, emissions decreases, road damage reduction and safety improvements haven't actually been determined.

The state owns the Alaska Railroad, which operates under its own board. In 2002, the Alaska Railroad Corp. produced a 234-page study on the benefits of commuter rail service. Between 1999 and 2007, the railroad has spent $78 million, much from federal sources, straightening the rail alignment between Anchorage and Wasilla, which would allow faster train service on the line. The 2002 report suggested the railroad buy reconditioned, self-propelled rail diesel cars to operate the commuter line, which would include several trains for the morning and evening rush hours.

“A locally sponsored commuter rail service could offer commuters a meaningful alternative to traffic jams and frazzled nerves,” the report concluded.

A commuter line that extended to the railroad depot at the airport would allow train service that other cities could only dream of.

Currently, for instance, neither of the two big New York City airports have subway service, and the District of Columbia Metro does not go all the way to Dulles International Airport.

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