Study recommends rail service between Mat-Su area and Anchorage

Posted: Monday, September 10, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A study estimates it would cost $28.2 million to launch commuter rail service between the Mat-Su area and Anchorage.

The study, completed by Houston, Texas-based Wilbur Smith Associates, said like many commuter rails nationwide, the service would require subsidies -- more than $2 million annually during the first years of operation.

The study offers a blueprint on how to implement a commuter train linking Anchorage to the fast-growing cities of Girdwood, Eagle River, Palmer and Wasilla.

For two decades, planners and railroad leaders have looked at whether commuter rail makes sense. Thousands of people who live in the targeted cities commute to Anchorage every day for work and school, sometimes spending more than two hours behind the wheel navigating icy highways and whiteouts. Commuter trains could reduce highway traffic, pollution and driving stress.

The state-owned Alaska Railroad already has spent tens of millions of dollars straightening its tracks to shorten travel times and make train service safer.

But the question remains: Would enough people abandon their cars and take the train to justify the money it would cost to build and run the line?

The study done for the Alaska Railroad recommends running a commuter train from Anchorage to Wasilla, but says Girdwood service should wait because costly track upgrades are needed and there are few regular commuters.

It would cost $28.2 million to build five stations and buy the trains for the Wasilla service. That would jump to $70.1 million if Girdwood was added, the study said.

The Federal Transit Administration funded most of the $250,000 study, with the railroad chipping in $50,000.

Commuter trains are used throughout the country to reduce traffic, often between suburbs and downtowns. But they're not without controversy. Many have exceeded their construction budgets and, once built, need millions of dollars a year in subsidies. In other cases, ridership has grown slowly, casting doubt on whether subsidizing commuter rail is fair to the public.

Consistent schedules, competitive fares and reasonable travel times are a must to make the service successful, the study said.

It suggests service initially begin with two trains departing Wasilla at 6 a.m. and 6:45 a.m., with stops at the Glenn-Parks highway junction, Eagle River and Elmendorf Air Force Base.

The trains would arrive 66 minutes later in downtown Anchorage, where buses would shuttle passengers to hospitals, universities and other major employment centers. At 5 p.m. and 5:45 p.m., trains would depart for Wasilla.

The study estimates that in the first years fewer than 360 of the estimated 18,200 daily commuters in the Mat-Su area and Eagle River would take the train to Anchorage.

Total trips per year would range from 152,000 to 190,000, increasing to 256,000 by 2015, the study said.

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