U.S. Transportation Secretary Buttigieg talks port challenges with Anchorage officials

A man at a podium, gesturing with his hand.
Pete Buttigieg spoke at the Port of Alaska on Tuesday. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has seen a lot of ports, but he has never seen one with the existential challenges of the Port of Alaska.

Buttigieg toured the port in downtown Anchorage Tuesday morning and heard about the 1,400 hollow steel pilings of the old dock, built in the 1960s, that are corroding into powder, a process hastened by metal-munching bacteria. He heard about the glacial silt in the water, driven by the massive tidal swing, sanding down any material installed to hold up a dock. And he heard about earthquake risk.

The port is embarking on a massive modernization project, projected to cost $1.6 billion, much of it — local officials hope — to come from the federal agency Buttigieg leads. The secretary sought reassurance that the new engineering is solid. 

“What about corrosion? Can that be so different for the next 50 years?” he asked.

Port External Affairs Director Jim Jager explained about the new steel thickness and the anti-corrosion technology.

The dock, Jager likes to say, is taller than the Statue of Liberty, measuring from the depth of the pilings to the top of the cranes. “Why is this such an expensive project? It’s actually huge. You just can’t see a lot,” Jager said.

Two men walk and talk.
Jim Jager, the port’s director of external affairs, shows Pete Buttigieg around. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

The secretary made no major announcements on his port tour, part of a multi-day swing through the state, from Kotzebue to Juneau. For the local officials who followed Buttigieg around the docks, the tour was more about what he heard than what he said.

Anchorage Assemblywoman Meg Zaletel wanted Buttigieg to see why such a relatively small port — compared to those in the rest of the country — costs so much.

“The importance of the secretary’s visit is really to show him that the port is not only what it appears on paper,” she said. “This port has so many unique features and it plays such an important role to the state that it’s always hard to convey that until you get out here.”

Understanding that, she and other local officials believe, is key to getting the funding needed to finish the project to develop a port that will last until the end of the century.

medium shot of a man sitting on a bus.
Pete Buttigieg on the port tour. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

The U.S. Department of Transportation granted the port $68.7 million last year from its port infrastructure development project.

“You ought to know that that $68 million award was the single largest award we made through this program last year,” Buttigieg said, giving credit to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law.

Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., is a bit of a celebrity, having run for president himself in 2020. As a member of Biden’s cabinet, he’s also the highest-ranking government official who is openly gay.

Chris Constant, one of the first gay members of the Anchorage Assembly, said that was meaningful to him.

“I love the fact that he is like me, that I’m like him and that we have a place in this world. And I celebrate his family,” Constant said. (Buttigieg and his husband are the parents of twin toddlers. The secretary said the 2-year-olds are learning to pronounce “Alaska” while he’s away.)

Mayor Dave Bronson said he was happy for the opportunity to present the secretary with his list of requests, which include that the federal government pay for 60% of the project. Bronson, who has anchored much of his agenda on the conservative side of the cultural divide, said Buttigieg’s pioneering status in the LGBT community is irrelevant, in his view.

“Why would I care? My thing is he’s doing his job,” Bronson said. “He’s committed to helping Anchorage, helping Alaska, with where we have needs and that’s what matters to me.”

There was little discussion Tuesday about what happened to the last big plan for the Anchorage port.

Two decades ago, the federal government committed hundreds of millions of dollars to a port expansion. It was plagued by problems — either in the design or the construction, depending on which engineering firm is making the case. The expansion was ultimately scrapped. Buttigieg says that failed project won’t be held against the current one.

“We really want to be focused more on the future than on the past. And what we recognize is that there is a need today, and there are resources today.”

Buttigieg repeatedly gave credit to President Biden’s infrastructure law for providing those resources, and noted that both of Alaska’s U.S. senators were among the Republicans who crossed the aisle to vote for the law. It’s slated to send $2.6 billion to Alaska.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the reason the prior port expansion failed is disputed.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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