FAIRBANKS -- A proposal to connect Alaska's railroad system to Canada and the Lower 48 could be getting more scrutiny.
The Senate version of the annual federal transportation bill provides $2 million to study the railroad connection. The money was added by Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska. The Senate passed the bill a week ago. The House passed its version, without the railroad study money, on May 19. A conference committee will decide later this summer whether the money stays in the budget.
The money would pay for a joint U.S.-Canada study of the 1,150-mile rail connection's feasibility. Promoters hope a railroad would spur mining and other resource development.
Murkowski already has filed a separate bill asking the administration to form a commission with Canada to conduct the study.
''While we still have a long way to go, the feasibility study is moving forward and has enough steam to command attention by those who hold the government's purse strings,'' Murkowski said in a statement released after the Senate approved the money.
The Alaska Railroad's most easterly track ends at Eielson Air Force Base. Canada's system comes closest in two equally distant points -- Fort Nelson and Fort St. James, both in British Columbia.
Scott Banks, Alaska Railroad spokesman in Anchorage, said the state-owned company appreciates the interest. ''If someone doesn't look out far ahead it'll never get done,'' he said.
Building rail in Alaska costs between $1 million and $2 million a mile, Banks said, which would put the total project cost at between $1.15 billion and $2.3 billion.
''It sounds like a lot of money, but you've got to think about the efficiencies you get with rail,'' Banks said. The rail not only could carry raw resources such as gravel, coal and petroleum but also could compete with ships and trucks, he said.
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