FAIRBANKS — Transportation experts will take a closer look at realigning the railroad through North Pole, thanks to nearly $1 million in federal funding announced Monday.
The grant will go toward an environmental assessment of re-routing the Alaska Railroad that studies impacts on traffic, population, wetlands and more. The project is part of a decade-long vision to move about 20 miles of track that runs through Fairbanks and North Pole further south. The realignment been split into three independent pieces, so assessments would also be required for the Fort Wainwright area and the city of Fairbanks before those parts moved forward.
“It’s the project that both the borough and the railroad agreed was the most beneficial and the priority,” said Bruce Carr, director of strategic planning for the Alaska Railroad Corporation, owner of the railroad. “Because this particular project will eliminate more crossings for a lot less money than the other two.”
The North Pole section offers the most simple engineering and financial scenario and would provide substantial safety benefits, according to an agreement between the city and the railroad corporation.
The relocation would also stimulate development in North Pole, Mayor Doug Isaacson said.
“The railroad is usually considered an economic driver, but here it’s an inhibitor,” he said.
Investors aren’t developing land around the railroad because the space would be inaccessible without expensive crossings, he said.
“Economically, it could be worth billions of dollars in development and places for people to live, places to work, manufacturing plants,” he said.
A realignment would also improve public safety, he said. North Pole has a growing population and a growing industrial base, which already puts pressure on small-town infrastructure, he said.
“There’s only room for one school bus at a time between the Old Rich and the railroad, and we have 30 buses a shift going through that intersection,” he said.
The environmental assessment is the first step to a better route. It will take about one year and cost about $1 million, Carr estimated. The investigation will be conducted by the corporation and overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Highway Administration.
“Once this document is complete, we will then be in a position to seek construction money,” Carr said.
The North Pole bypass is estimated to cost $50 million. The entire relocation would add up to more than $200 million, according to the railroad corporation.
Isaacson hopes this assessment will get the ball rolling in the borough, he said.
“Since these projects take so long, the hope is by proving this and getting it project ready, it will provide the impetus to get the rest of the rail realigned,” he said.
“When money starts getting transferred like $1 million, that’s no longer a petty issue.”
Contact staff writer Molly Rettig at 459-7590.