Anchorage Port Project Under New Scrutiny

Mon February 13, 2012 - West Edition
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An aerial view of the Port of Anchorage, Alaska.
An aerial view of the Port of Anchorage, Alaska.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) The troubled Port of Anchorage expansion project is under new scrutiny with attention being given to whether the design for redoing the port is suitable.

Local and state politicians have become increasingly concerned with the project at the 50-year-old port as costs have escalated and construction problems mounted. About $288 million has been spent on the port expansion project so far. The estimated price tag for the full expansion, which would replace the existing structure and create new berths for bigger ships, now tops $1 billion. That is triple the estimate in 2005.

Mayor Dan Sullivan last year proposed scaling back the project. The Anchorage Daily News reported Jan. 27 that he now wants the municipality to wait until the results of the reviews are submitted. A city engineering advisory commission has been calling for an independent review of the project since at least 2005.

The project stalled after the 2009 construction season when inspections revealed that hundreds of steel sheets used to form a new dock face had bent and separated during installation. The structure’s design is known as “open cell sheet pile,” a trademark registered to the project designer, PND Engineers Inc.

Instead of a traditional dock on pilings, the design calls for interlocking lengths of steel hammered into Cook Inlet to form U-shaped cells that are filled with gravel to extend the face of the dock 400 ft. (122 m). The full project is envisioned as a 1.5-mi. (2.4 km) wall of steel.

Since the problems arose in the fall of 2009, work crews have mainly been inspecting and ripping out the earlier work. Last August, a bulldozer operator was killed when his machine slid and he became trapped in gravel fill and drowned. A state investigation found he was working on an unstable slope.

The contractor overseeing the construction is Integrated Concepts and Research Corp., or ICRC, which began as a subsidiary of Koniag Inc. ICRC had never managed a port redevelopment when in 2003, as an Alaska Native firm, it won a no-bid contract to run the project. Koniag later sold ICRC to an engineering and technical support firm, VSE Corp., based in Alexandria, Va.

ICRC held onto the port contract, hiring and monitoring the subcontractors that do the physical work. The company has earned close to $28 million over nine years, counting what it expects to receive this year, according to its figures. The latest one-year extension of its contract expires May 31.

Now, the structure itself is under close examination. Plans call for a design suitability study by engineering firm CH2M Hill to determine if the open cell sheet pile design is workable, according to those involved.

CH2M Hill is currently managing a Panama Canal expansion, according to its Web site. Findings and recommendations on the Port of Anchorage project are expected by April.

The Corps of Engineers also will be doing a companion engineering and construction analysis, drawing on various experts at its engineering and research center in Vicksburg, Miss. That review should be done by April.

The U.S. Maritime Administration also has arranged for a study by another engineering firm, AECOM, to look at what went wrong and who is responsible.

“We have to understand what the cause was and how do we get it repaired, how we get it fixed at the end of the day,” said Roger Bohnert, the Maritime Administration’s deputy associate administrator of intermodal system development, which includes the Anchorage port.

Plans also call for an audit by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which will examine the federal agency’s oversight of port projects.

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