Brennan: Wasilla-Anchorage rail service
My first reaction to Gov. Bill Walker’s executive order on commuter rail service between Anchorage and Wasilla was skeptical to put it mildly.
Oh boy, I thought, here comes another Knik Arm Crossing-type project. Throwing millions of dollars on something that won’t work. This is not Los Angeles or New York where the numbers on computers are huge. And, I was sure, the people who commute to Anchorage would always want to have their cars handy for short trips around town after they got here.
But when I expressed my skepticism to a friend who is more knowledgeable on such subjects, he told me I was all wet and a lot of Valley commuters would likely use the service. After all, he said, quite a few of the commuters come to town, go directly to their offices or other workplaces and head home right after quitting time.
Then it occurred to me that whenever I head for the Birchwood skeet-shooting range and leave at 4:30 p.m., I wind up in a massive traffic jam of other drivers. Some are headed for Eagle River but the bulk of the drivers are headed for the Valley. They obviously just left work and are on their way home. I understand the same thing happens in the morning but I’m mostly retired these days and rarely get on the road at that time of day.
Some of my Facebook friends who make the commute said they would much rather read, relax and get caught up on email than fight the traffic. And in many cases married couples could get by with one car instead of two if they only needed a vehicle to get around in the Valley and occasional runs into the city.
The Anchorage Daily News quoted one commuter as saying “Anything that would improve traffic between here and the Valley would be a great improvement.” Another commuter told the ADN: “It decreases the risk we take every day on the road itself. And we can read books, listen to music, do whatever we want to do, as we’re not on the road so much.”
Making such a thing work would obviously require reconfiguring the Alaska Railroad for commuter service between the Valley and Anchorage. It would need to be convenient at both ends, with commuters able to get from a train station to their ultimate destinations with minimal cost and delay.
Governor Walker’s executive order calls for establishing a nine-member commission to look into the feasibility of reconfiguring the region’s transportation system to make such service workable. The commission’s membership will include the mayors of Anchorage, Wasilla, Palmer, Houston and the Mat-Su Borough.
One of the first priorities should obviously be conducting a poll of those who live in the Valley and work in Anchorage to see how many would actually use such a service. Some of those who responded positively to the news are commuters who would mainly like other drivers to be taken off the road. Those folks seem unlikely to use the service themselves.
Such commuter service has been studied many times in the past and the reports and recommendations went nowhere, for the most part. It’s unclear why Walker thinks things might be different this time, but it could just be that he thinks the time is right — and perhaps he is onto something.
A study in 2002 concluded that such commuter rail service should be used with reconditioned, self-propelled railroad diesel cars, with several trains composed of such cars making runs during the morning and evening rush hours. The service might also include runs to the rail station at Anchorage International Airport, which would give new life to the little-used station. Wasilla is already ahead of the curve on the commuter rail idea and is building a large parking area for cars and staging for cargo.
Those supporting the idea say the service would have environmental, safety and cost-saving benefits. The first two items seem to be reasonable assumptions, but I’ll believe in the cost-saving benefits when I see them.
The good news is that federal money might cover a significant portion of the cost.