Skepticism dooms study of rail link to North Slope

FAIRBANKS (AP) — A North Pole legislator wants money to see whether a railroad extension to far northern Alaska is feasible, but his colleagues dismissed the idea as welfare for university projects.

Rep. Doug Isaacson proposed spending $2 million on a feasibility study by the University of Alaska Fairbanks analyzing a potential railroad connection between Fairbanks and Deadhorse.

House Transportation Committee members reacted skeptically, The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

Isaacson said the rail extension could lead to new oil-drilling and mining opportunities and reduce the high cost of doing business on the North Slope.

“We’re so addicted to oil, that’s all we can see,” Isaacson said. “We need to diversify. This can help with getting new oil, this can help with getting new mines open, this can help with expanding other economic opportunities for the state, (this) would be a very, very, very good use of money.”

Rep. Eric Feige, R-Chickaloon, said such an extension could make sense in the future, but university researchers are better off studying something with more immediate returns.

“It’s also not our job to come up with welfare-type projects to keep university researchers engaged,” Feige said.

UAF researcher Paul Metz found that the high cost of doing business on the North Slope could be significantly reduced by building the 450-mile rail extension.

Shipping costs would go from $1 per ton per mile for trucking to just $0.10 per ton per mile by rail. That would reduce the cost of trucking a well from $5.6 million to just $540,000, his report states.

Some questioned why the government would even pay for something that could fall instead to private interests.

“If there is feasibility and economic imperative for oil industry or mineral development,” said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, “why has private industry not already explored it?”

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