A Canadian-based company is moving ahead on its proposal to build a 1,600-mile, $17 billion railroad line connecting Alaska with Canada and the Lower 48. Officials with the Alaska-to-Alberta Railway say the shipping from Alaska’s ports would get products to marks in Asia three days sooner than ports along the West Coast. And they say the privately funded project would generate some 6,000 construction jobs and help boost the state’s sagging economy.
The Alaska-to-Alberta Railway is the latest of several plans to build a freight-rail link with Canada that’ve been proposed over the past century. But company vice chair Mead Treadwell says the so-called A2A Railway will succeed where others have failed, because world markets are hungry for resources that Canada produces, but can’t export quickly enough to meet demand.
“The port capacity and sometimes the rail capacity at other places in Canada are just so choked that there’s a potential market for a new port and a new method to get to Asian markets,” he said in an interview Monday.
The railway would be the new method, and the “new” ports would include the Port of Alaska in Anchorage and Port MacKenzie, in the Mat-Su. Shipping out of either port would speed delivery of commodities to Asia by 3-4 days. And both ports would be expanded to handle the four commodities that Treadwell says would mainly be transported over the A2A Railway: bitumen, potash, sulfur, grains.
Bitumen is the thick, gooey byproduct extracted from the so-called oil sands of northern Alberta that’s processed into fuel and other petroleum products. Concerns over the environmental risks of transporting and shipping bitumen through and out of British Columbia have limited the oil industry’s ability to export it. But Treadwell says the Alaska-Alberta Railway Development Corp.’s plan is environmentally safe and less economically risky than a pipeline.
“We believe we have a project which is competitive with pipelines,” he said, “and one of the reasons why it’s competitive is because its risks can spread over several different commodities.”
Officials with A2A Railway and other Canadian firms have proposed putting the bitumen into the Trans-Alaska Pipeline at Delta Junction for transport to Valdez. But Treadwell says pipeline officials have raised concerns about that idea, so railway officials now plan to bring the bitumen to Port MacKenzie for export. And he says the company’s also studying construction of a $2 billion rail spur to Valdez.
“At this point, we’re looking at rail transportation all the way to tidewater,” he said.
Treadwell says the railway would provide a means to transport bitumen and other so-called “stranded resources,” like potash and sulfur extracted from remote areas in Canada and Alaska. He says other materials, like the copper and zinc the state hopes will be excavated from the Ambler Mining District, might go the other direction on the railway.
“It’s up to the mine where they’re going to want to send their concentrates, but we give an option to ship the concentrates to Canadian smelters by rail.”
Treadwell is a former lieutenant governor and chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission whose business experience includes heading up a private equity firm. He says hauling 10 trainloads of commodities daily would generate enough revenue to repay the private-sector financing that the company would use to build the railway.
Treadwell says A2A is now surveying the route, which would stretch from northern Alberta to either Delta Junction or North Pole – the 80-mile stretch formerly known as the Alaska Railroad's Northern Rail Extension. And he says the A2A is working with the Alaska Railroad under the terms of an agreement they signed last year.
“We’re definitely interested and excited about the project,” says Alaska Railroad President and CEO Bill O’Leary. He said in an interview Wednesday that the A2A project would provide many benefits for both the state and its railroad.
“A critical part of the Alaska Railroad mission is to foster economic development for the state,” O’Leary said. “And it’s hard to think of a project that, if it does come to pass, that could provide any more solid economic development than something like this.”
Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Jim Dodson agrees.
“Transportation is absolutely a key component to economic activity and development,” Dodson said in an interview last week. “So, I think it’s an exciting project!”
Treadwell says if all goes according to plan, work on the project would begin within three years and be completed in six. He says for now, the company will continue talks with state and federal official and property owners along the route, which includes mainly the state and Alaska Native organizations and corporations. And he says they’ll also begin holding meetings with people who live in communities on the route, beginning with one in Delta Junction on Sept. 9.
Editor's note: This story has been revised to clarify that the meeting in Delta will be held Sept. 9. The Delta Junction Community Library will host the online meeting, which will be webcast over the Zoom videoconference platform. To access the online presentation from Zoom, enter the webinar ID, 963 4018 9114, and passcode, 056292.
An audio-only version of the meeting will be available by calling (253) 215-8782.
For more information, contact A2A Railway spokesperson Sean Solie at (907) 519-1885.