Crews race to make repairs at Port of Anchorage ahead of Modernization Project

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - For the Port of Anchorage, and the team fixing it, the biggest challenge may be Father Time: The POA's docks are supported by 1423 steel piles - posts that hold the whole thing up - which are deteriorating so badly that many have lost up to three quarters of their original thickness.

"They're racing to get these things on and bolted up, so they're secure before the tide gets so high that we can't work and level," said Bernie Rosenberger, Diving Operations Manager for Global Diving and Salvage Alaska.

A team that includes professional divers was charged with the task of repairing some of the Port of Anchorage piles with jackets this year, like many years before. They've been bolting two different types of curved steel sheets on the piles in order to help alleviate some of the damage to them. One is a friction coupler, which encapsulates the pile, and the other goes around the pile but leaves a space which is later filled with concrete.

"What we're doing now is we're putting Band Aids on corroding piles," said Jim Jager, Dir. of External Affairs for the Port of Anchorage. "These will increase the load-bearing capacity of the piles, or, restore the load-bearing capacity of the piles so that we can still have the loads of loading and offloading ships."

Arguably the center of Alaska's commerce and trade, 50 percent of all waterborne freight and one third of all refined petroleum that comes through Alaska enters via POA docks. The POA also sees a whopping 90 percent of merchandised goods which reach about 85 percent of the population in the Last Frontier and serves as the point of entry for fuel for Ted Stevens International Airport and Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson.

That's a heavy weight to bear when wharf pilings are slowly but surely disintegrating into the sea.

"If we have an earthquake, you know, that's another bet altogether," Jager said.

For example, Port of Anchorage Director Stephen Ribuffo said, another major earthquake could cause silt and other terra to liquefy and run down the slope from the cargo yard, "sweeping the piles away like matchsticks," and collapsing docks, clogging ship berths and in turn potentially stopping port operations for years at a time.

"That's the other force you have to account for, is if we have an earthquake," Jager said, "you've got side-to-side movement. So that's both the shaking and movement."

The jackets don't do anything to help with the seismic stability of the piles, 100 or so of which have been repaired each year since 2004 at a price tag of about $3 million annually. That money has been specifically set aside each year for the pile jackets.

However, Jager said he expects the pile jacket program will be halted as soon as the POA has money to start the replacement program, with the yearly allotted $3 million for jackets likely going toward help paying for the new dock via that Port Modernization and Replacement Project.

The new dock will take the place of the old one, but it will be about 150 feet further out into the water to accommodate larger and more modern ships. It will also be a few hundred meters from the original site of the port, with the project being completed in multiple phases over the coming years.

Overall, according to Ribuffo, the port generates somewhere between $12 and $14 million annually, with it costing only a couple million less each year to run the place, depending on repairs that need to be made. No property tax dollars go to the port to pay for anything, according to Ribuffo.

"We are self-sufficient," he wrote in a follow-up statement, "and we make payments to the city like any other taxed private sector business."

The POA is also the only National Strategic Seaport in Alaska, one of 23 nationwide. All the jet fuel used at JBER as well as everything that's for sale in Alaska base exchanges and commissaries also go through the port.

But along with time, money matters can be just as big of a challenge.

"Over the years, [the Modernization Project] went from a $175 million dollar project to a $1.2 billion dollar project," said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, who at one point opposed the project. "I was saying, 'Wait before we start on this,' to ensure it was being done in an efficient manner."

For a long time, Gara said, the project was drawing tons and tons of money, with the cost continuing to skyrocket.

"But now the city has made the cost a reasonable project, at this point," he said. "They've finally done what they should've done years ago, when I opposed."

Ribuffo said the final cost of the remaining phases of the Modernization Project are being re-estimated based on proof-of-concept testing that was performed this past summer.

Global Diving and Salvage was scheduled to work only through October, but got an extension to Nov. 30. They expect to be done with this year's project by that date, Ribuffo said.