Open mining opportunities with a railroad

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We’ve heard the old adage “opportunity only knocks once”, and I think I hear it knocking loud and clear. The Manh Choh project could be great for Alaska, with good job opportunities and a significant boost to our state’s lagging economy. It would be an even greater opportunity if it was linked to a rail link.

The current plan is to truck ore from Kinross Gold’s Manh Choh project near Tetlin to the Kinross Fort Knox mill north of Fairbanks, traveling 250 miles each way. The proposal has many obstacles. First and foremost, safety. Second, the high cost of road maintenance over the proposed life of mining. Ore concentrates would be transported by large trucks 90 to 120 feet long, with trucks entering and leaving approximately every 7.5 minutes, 24 hours a day. There are significant concerns about traffic disruptions, accidents, exposure to school traffic, seasonal tourism, wildlife and traffic destined for Delta and Tok, as well as defense-related convoys to Fort Greely, the only missile defense site in our country. The cost of maintaining an aging road with so much traffic would be extremely high. I remember a dialogue decades ago between the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Consortium and the State Department of Highways: If they had anticipated the exorbitant costs of haul road maintenance, they probably would have built a railway instead.

The state, through the Permanent Fund, has already acquired a $10 million stake in the Manh Choh project. The state could only improve its position as a minority partner by improving access to the project. The case has been well defined for a driving route, but it must be approved by the people of Alaska and our state government. For these reasons and many more, we have to look for another alternative: rail. This is really where the opportunity lies.

Consider the viability of a roughly 107-mile rail connection for a phase one route from Eielson Air Force Base to Fort Greely, our missile defense site. This would be followed at a later date by the second phase of an extension to Tetlin, approximately 121 miles from the mine site.

If there was agreement for a green light on the railroad proposal, a temporary solution could be to allow ore trucks to use the highway between Tetlin and a rail transfer facility near Fort Greely until until the rail connection is complete.

Finally, the third phase would connect to the Canadian border, a distance of 89 miles, with a final connection to the Canadian National Railway system near Prince George, British Columbia. At this point, Alaska would be connected to the US and Canadian transcontinental rail network. This would finally provide much of Alaska with an alternative transportation service other than that currently provided by our shipping industry.

For the first time, the economy of a rail link can be supported by an identified tonnage of freight: mining concentrates. The Manh Choh project suggests 4-5 years or more to move the ore north to the Kinross facility outside of Fairbanks. In addition, it is possible that other mines will be developed once the rail is in place. The University of Alaska Fairbanks has identified numerous mining prospects along the proposed rail right-of-way that could be developed once rail transportation becomes available. The Alaska Railroad Corporation has much of this information.

The Van Horne Institute of Canada, along with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Michigan Tech, estimated the mineral potential in the 160 kilometer rail corridor, identifying 1,117 occurrences of metallic minerals. These are in a 1,760 km section between Delta Junction and Fort Nelson, British Columbia. Valuation estimates exceed $659 billion.

Our national security is an essential addition to the need for a rail connection to Fort Greely, our nation’s only missile defense system. This is particularly urgent given our crisis posture with Russia and China today, as well as advanced missile launches by North Korea. Yet the only means of transportation in and out of the Greely facility is via the Richardson Highway. The railroad would be a significant contribution to our nation’s national security and will certainly be welcomed by the Department of Defense, as well as nearby Eielson Air Force Base.

The Alaska Railroad was built during World War I. The highway from Seward to Fairbanks and Anchorage was built years later. The railroad was designed as a development railroad to carry large tonnage, primarily coal to Seward, Anchorage, and Fairbanks, and points in between. Today, the railroad still carries coal in addition to oil, propane, container vans and many other goods, as well as tourists to Alaska.

The opportunity is before us. Instead of ending up with a well-used and tired Richardson Highway after the mines run out, we would have a new, functioning rail system that would promote economic development and strengthen our national security. We would no longer be solely dependent on air and sea transport, which would help alleviate the supply chain issues we face today.

Whether one chooses a highway or rail route, funding is a major factor. Along with the late Senator Ted Stevens, Rep. Don Young, Governor Bill Sheffield, and I were involved in transferring the Alaska Railroad to the state in the 1980s. With the sale of the railroad, specific authorization was granted to the surviving state railroad to have millions of dollars in authorized bonding capacity. Rail funding is expected to be considered in the recently passed congressional infrastructure bill, in which Alaska received $1.3 billion.

Since Alaska is our nation’s recognized first line of defense, I anticipate the Department of Defense would prioritize a railroad funding effort.

Phase 3 would involve extending the railway a short distance between Tetlin and the Canadian border. Negotiations with the Government of Canada and the Canadian National Railway Company for a connection near Prince George should not be too difficult. As part of the old A2A effort (Alberta to Alaska), a Presidential Authorization was initiated that could easily be transferred to extending the Alaska Railroad into Canada.

There is a legitimate concern about the likely time frame to construct a railway to Tetlin, as opposed to a shorter time line using the existing highway. However, if the railway were considered a national security issue, it would be given priority and could be built quickly. In either case, there are many existing engineering studies and right-of-way studies, some held by the Corps of Engineers and some by the Alaska Railroad Corporation. These should be carefully considered before any decision is made, but should help to reduce the number of additional studies required.

Some issues that need to be addressed by both the state and Manh Choh include:

How much will the public and the state pay to upgrade and expand the Richardson Freeway? And what would we have to show for that at the end of the project? What would be the cost estimate to build from Eielson to Fort Greely, as well as from Fort Greely to Tetlin, and finally from Tetlin to the Canadian border?

What is the future economic value of Alaska having a rail connection to Canada and the Lower 48 rail system as the third phase?

Let’s find out. Let’s get on track and start whistling.

Frank Murkowski is a former Governor and United States Senator from Alaska.

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