Tales from Wasilla: Railroaded

One of Alaska’s boondoggles is back in the news: the Mat Su Borough’s hugely expensive, still incomplete railroad to Port MacKenzie.

So far, Alaska has invested more than $180 million on a railroad spur from the existing main line of the Alaska Railroad to Port MacKenzie. The money has run out with at least $125 million more needed to complete the project. And that’s just the gravel rail grade. Only a few miles of track have been laid.

It’s not Alaska’s biggest boondoggle, but it’s a contender.

However, that’s not why the unfinished Port MacKenzie Rail Extension is back in the news.

The Mat Su Borough has announced that  roughly 25 miles of railroad track-free grade is closed to public use. That might not be much of a hardship in most of America, but in Mat-Su, where off-road vehicles run in armadas and good trails are scarce, an unused railroad grade looks like a prize path. Except the Borough says no.

It is true that the railroad spur has served other purposes. For example, it enriched Rep. Lynn Gattis (R, Wasilla), who was paid for an easement she couldn’t grant, that was never used. WC supposes that’s value, for a given definition of value.1

But it won’t be permitted to be an ORV trail, because that might damage it, or the ORV-riders night engage in further vandalism, or access to it might embarrass the Mat Su Borough even more than it already is.

Perhaps the railroad spur will eventually ship all of the barley grown at that another State boondoggle, the Delta Barley Project? Or maybe it will get passengers from the Alaska Railroad’s spur line from the Bill Sheffield Train Station at Ted Stevens International Airport to the Ship Creek Switch yards? Maybe milk from the Point Mackenzie Dairy Project? No? How about pork from all the pigs at the Fairbanks slighter house that sucked up the life savings of Don and Alice McKee? Passengers riding the M/V Susitna? Nothing?

The Port Mackenzie railroad spur is another boondoggle in Alaska’s long, sad history of boondoggles. While it may have enriched a few politicians and their allies, thinking it will ever ship freight is damnfoolishness. The time when Alaska could even afford boondoggles is long past. The highest and best use of the railroad right of way may very well be as an ORV corridor. It may be the only use the thing ever sees. Otherwise, it only serves as another indicator of the gullibility of the citizens of Alaska.



  1. In WC’s 2014 post on this theft, a reader took WC to task for characterizing the railway spur as “abandoned.” WC still awaits an apology from the reader.