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Tanana River Bridge Nearly Done, But State Officials Can’t Predict Fate of Next Phase

Alaska Railroad

Alaska’s longest bridge is pretty much done. The 3,300-foot structure now spans the Tanana riverbed just west of Salcha, providing the military with year-round ground access to its training ranges on the far side. But, state officials don’t yet know where they’ll get funding to begin work on the next phase of the Northern Rail Extension project.

Alaska Railroad spokesman Tim Sullivan says there are still a few tasks remaining before the Railroad, which headed up the project, will hand the bridge over to the Army in early August.

“Our contractors and folks out there are in the process of doing cleanup,” Sullivan said. “And we’re getting ready to turn the bridge over and make it so the military can have access over there to their training area.”

Project Director Mark Peterburs says the contractor, Kiewit Infrastructure West, has some final work to do on the bridge before it can dismantle the construction camp it built on the east bank of the Tanana for the project.

“We’ve still got quite a bit of infrastructure that has to be dismantled and removed, and you can’t really do that until everything else is done,” he said.

Peterburs says those final tasks include reinforcing the structure on which railroad tracks would be laid during the second phase of the overall project, known as the Northern Rail Extension. About 13 miles of track also would be built in phase 2 that would run from a point near Moose Creek to the bridge.

Phases three and four would extend the track southward from the west side of the Tanana River to training ranges around Fort Greely.

But Sullivan says those follow-on projects are up in the air now, because money is tight for both the state and federal government.

“The timeframe as this point is completely dependent upon funding,” he said. “With the budget situations as they are for the military and the state. It’s tougher and tougher for projects to find the support that they need to get done.”

The federal government contributed $105 million toward the $190 million-dollar bridge. But Army officials said in November they couldn’t even come up with funding to build trails and roads on the west side of the new bridge.

Sullivan says the railroad estimates phase 2 will cost somewhere between $60 million and $100 million dollars to build.

Credit Alaska Railroad
Floodlights on a crane illuminate the far end of the bridge-construction site in Salcha as aurora dance overhead.

Tammie Wilson, who represents the North Pole area in the Legislature, said Friday she couldn’t say when the state might come up with money for phase 2.

Doug Isaacson, a former North Pole mayor who now also represents the area in the Legislature, says the uncertainty over funding and the Alaska Railroad’s own budget problems make this the ideal time to rethink the whole idea of the Northern Rail Extension.

“What we have to do right now is we have to look at revenue streams,” he said. “Since we started construction, a lot has happened with the railroad. A lot has happened with our state economy.”

Isaacson says it makes more sense to extend the Railbelt to the north, to help develop oil and mineral resources along the Dalton Highway. He says that would enable the financially strapped railroad to recover some of the revenues it lost when Flint Hills shut down its North Pole refinery.

“I’m very much in favor of going south, but let’s do it as it becomes economic to pay for that,” he said. “And it may very well be economic, but maybe not as economic as going north. First, connect that, then the railroad has more revenues to be able to make the connection south.”

Isaacson says he’ll be talking with the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce’s transportation committee Thursday morning about his idea to put the Northern Rail Extension project back on track – with tracks that head north.

Editors note: This story has been revised to correct the reference to the length of the Phase 2 railroad route. It would be 13 miles long, not nine.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.