ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Railroad is trying to find out what it would take to persuade commuters from the Matanuska and Susitna valleys to ride the rails to work in Anchorage.
The railroad is conducting a survey of about 400 commuters, to begin shortly after Christmas. From the survey, railroad officials would estimate what it would cost to develop a rider-friendly, regular commuter rail service between the bedroom communities in the Mat-Su and employment centers in Anchorage, and investigate how to pay for it.
''I envision a nice coach with coffee service, probably, and laptop computer plug-ins, and music channels,'' said former Gov. Bill Sheffield, outgoing president of the state-owned railroad. ''It doesn't cost much more to do it right.''
The commuter rail idea has been around for decades. But it's never become more than a notion, largely because previous studies found it would attract too few riders or require too much of a subsidy.
But times and conditions are changing, according to Sheffield and other railroad executives.
The population of Wasilla, Palmer and surrounding areas has swollen in the last decade. As the valley's population increases, so does congestion during morning and evening commutes.
The U.S. Census estimates 8,000 people live in the Valley but work in Anchorage.
The railroad is already trying to make itself a more attractive alternative. Straighter tracks and better switches should slice travel time between Wasilla and Anchorage by a third, to an estimated 56 minutes. Federal money to buy coaches and build depots and park-and-ride lots is easier to get, Sheffield said.
''All of a sudden, the capital dollars are available ... to lay the groundwork for commuter service,'' said railroad spokeswoman Wendy Lindskoog.
The railroad is paying up to a quarter million dollars for the study, mostly with federal funds.
Conceivably, the railroad could debut a commuter rail link within five years, perhaps by the late fall or winter of 2003, Sheffield said.
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