Alaska Rural Development Council: “A New Transportation System in the U.S. Arctic: What Should be Built Where?”

Dr. Andrew Metzger, Associate Professor of Engineering at the University of Alaska Anchorage, gave a presentation about building a new transportation system in the Arctic to a breakfast meeting of the Alaska Resource Development Council on May 7 in Anchorage.

Dr. Metzger said Arctic opportunities are opening up with sea ice abatement and globalization.  Goods need to get to market and the first step in transportation planning is to identify the customers, the required levels of service, the transportation network components, and the construction locations.  He said this exercise hasn’t yet occurred in Alaska.

As a hypothetical scenario, Dr. Metzger discussed the Western Arctic Corridor, which would run from a subsea area offshore of Wainwright on the North Slope through northwestern Alaska to Nome on the Seward Peninsula.  The corridor would link together all of the economic opportunities along the way: oil & gas, coal, zinc, copper, rare earth minerals, and graphite.

The corridor could be used for dry bulk transport, liquid bulk transport, and movement of goods and supplies.  Road corridors, once established, attract other utilities.

On the map, the Western Arctic Corridor could link with the Northern Sea Route in the Aleutians and the North Pacific Great Circle Route.  Under the most ambitious scenario, raw materials could be shipped to the Aleutian Islands, Aleutian geothermal power could be used for processing and manufacturing, and finished products could be sold throughout the Pacific Rim.  A secondary benefit would be products shipped back to western Alaska.

Dr. Metzger said that in transportation planning, the transportation system needs to be considered as a whole rather than just the individual assets (e.g. a single port).

Dr. Metzger said the Arctic corridor infrastructure could be multi-modal and would look completely different than anything that has been seen before.  In his slides (found here), he showed pre-cast concrete piers built across the tundra with integrated rail, pipeline, energy and communications systems running on top. It would have minimal environmental impact.

Dr. Metzger said his intention was not to propose this project, but to get people thinking about the possibilities.  Already, Russia is building northern rail corridors to access its Arctic resources.  In the Western Hemisphere, the railway terminus at Churchill, Manitoba, on the Hudson Bay currently provides the only Arctic Ocean transportation corridor.

To further study Arctic transportation projects, Dr. Metzger recommended a team comprised of economists, logisticians and financiers, not necessarily engineers.  As for entities to manage projects, Dr. Metzger said the Arctic corridor would be good for the port authority model.  An Aleutian trans-shipment port could be developed by private corporations.

The driving factors in determining Arctic transportation project feasibility will be extraction costs and market revenues, said Dr. Metzger.  If resources can be sold for more than they cost to produce, the projects may be viable.