Railroad opens new depot at Alaska airport

Posted: Thursday, December 05, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The new Alaska Railroad depot at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is complete and ready for business, starting next spring.

The railroad unveiled the depot Wednesday night, taking hundreds of lawmakers and business leaders on a 20-minute ride from downtown Anchorage to the new $28 million depot.

Starting this spring, the airport train will operate twice a day, five days a week during the tourist season from May to September.

''It's years ahead of its time,'' said U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who was instrumental in securing funding for the project. ''It will make Alaska a tourist mecca.''

The depot is expected to boost rail traffic by allowing cruise passengers to disembark in Seward and ride the train directly to the airport, instead of having to get off downtown and take a bus or cab to catch a plane.

''A revolutionary step in an evolving effort to connect road, rail, air and cruise ship travel,'' is how a railroad brochure describes the project.

Besides helping to make travel more convenient for cruise passengers, the new station is also meant to spur interest in a commuter rail service linking outlying communities to Anchorage.

''It's the centerpiece for that,'' said Bill Sheffield, Anchorage port director and former Alaska governor and railroad president.

While Sheffield acknowledged that there won't be legions of passengers riding the train in the beginning, it was important to establish a beachhead for the station as the airport undergoes a major expansion.

But critics, including former state Rep. Andrew Halcro, say Alaska doesn't have the population base to support commuter rail. And spending $28 million to ease transportation of a few thousand cruise vacationers isn't a good use of public funds, Halcro said.

''It's another project where people are going to look at it in three to four years and shake their heads and say, 'Here's another government project that can't pay for itself.' That alarms me as a taxpayer,'' said Halcro, whose family owns the Avis car rental business in Alaska.

Former Alaska Senate President Drue Pearce and Anchorage Rep. Norm Rokeberg have also questioned the project and the way it came about. The Federal Railroad Administration approved the funding in 1998 but the Legislature didn't hear about it until the next year and had no say over whether the state-owned railroad should build the station or not.

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