The Anchorage Assembly has brought in some familiar names in Alaska political and maritime circles to determine the best path forward on its troubled port modernization project.
The Assembly Enterprise and Utility Oversight Committee on April 18 approved a $45,000 contract to a partnership of the national project management firm Ascent PGM and the Anchorage consulting firm led by Mark Begich Northern Compass Group. Ascent Alaska Vice President Roe Sturgulewski said he has worked on large port projects in Unalaska and Kodiak as well as other smaller marine infrastructure efforts across the state over the past 30 years.
Begich, a former U.S. senator and Anchorage mayor, noted during the April 18 committee meeting that he opposed the original port project management structure that put the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, in charge of the construction project because of the agency’s lack of experience in project management. MARAD’s management was approved by the Assembly and former Mayor George Wuerch shortly before Begich was sworn in as mayor in 2003, he said.
Most recently Begich ran as a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018 when he lost to Republican Michael J. Dunleavy.
Construction problems arose in the 2008-09 timeframe on the initial $350 million port expansion project, which has mostly been stalled since. Those issues led the city to sue MARAD in 2014 to recoup lost construction funds; that lawsuit is ongoing in Federal Claims Court. The cost estimate on a new, scaled back design advanced by the engineering firm CH2M has gone from $485 million in 2014 to nearly $2 billion today, prompting the Assembly to reexamine all aspects of the work.
The nearly $2 billion price tag is largely seen as unfeasible given the State of Alaska’s ongoing budget deficits and the fact that the Municipality of Anchorage does not have a tax base to support such an expensive endeavor. The port, renamed the Port of Alaska in 2017 by the Assembly, is the primary entrance point for consumer goods and commodities going to communities across Alaska and portions of its badly corroded docks have less than 10 years of operational life left before the must be shut in, according to port engineers.
The full Assembly approved up to $100,000 in late March for consulting work to determine, among other things, why the costs on the current plan have escalated so severely; what design criteria the project should have; what basic infrastructure and amenities port customers need and the best way to pay for it all.
Assemblyman Christopher Constant said the Ascent-Northern Compass team was the only bidder on the municipality’s request and other potential bidders told him they would not bid on the port consulting work because the contract terms would preclude them from competing for potentially more lucrative port construction contracts.
Begich said they expect to have a report back to the Assembly by Sept. 15, which would be a faster turnaround than requested, but it better matches budget cycles for possibly securing funding for the project.