The Port of Alaska is in the midst of a five-stage modernization project that is expected to take a decade to complete.

Similar to the rest of the United States, Alaska’s infrastructure needs major improvement. The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded the nation’s 49th state a C- on its 2021 report card, matching the grade on the national evaluation. 

Alaska’s ports, however, fared worse than the state’s grade and far worse than the national grade (B-) for that category. Its ports earned a D+ grade on the infrastructure report, with “numerous facility owners unable to maintain or repair aging infrastructure due to the lack of local funding.”

The Port of Alaska, one of nine in the state and which has been described as the “economic heart” of the state, needs immediate attention. The port has embarked on a five-stage modernization project that could take a decade to complete with a cost that could reach $1.8 billion. 

The PoA handles 50% of the state’s inbound cargo. It also critical to the nation’s defense infrastructure, playing an essential role in Department of Defense missions in the state and around the world. It also provides a resilient transportation lifeline that supports routine movement of consumer goods, industrial development, and disaster recovery.

The modernization plan is crucial for the Port and its residents. “This situation imperils Alaska’s economy, because the state does not have the cargo import capacity that could adequately substitute for the Port if it is significantly damaged by an earthquake or other disaster,’’ one infrastructure report says. 


The first terminal to be constructed and completed in the modernization plan is the Port’s Petroleum and Cement Terminal (PCT). It replaces a terminal that opened in 1965. A 2018 earthquake caused more damage to the terminal, whose pilings were already showing signs of extreme corrosion.

The new PCT and floating dock on the south side of the Port are expected to be completed in late 2022. A team from Pacific Pile & Marine drove approximately 200 piles. The project included constructing the PCT trestle and loading platform, building the mooring dolphins, and installation of utilities as well as the petroleum and cement handling infrastructure. Nearly 125 of the piles were later removed.

Great Northern Engineering designed the project, which included more than 4,400 pages of design calculations, 285 sheets of plan drawings and details, and 390 pages of technical specifications. 

The pile driving needed to cease at several points when beluga whales entered the vicinity in the Upper Cook Inlet. The whales are an endangered species, and federal regulations prohibit pile driving when endangered marine mammals are sighted in a protected area that extends about 1.5 miles around the PCT site.


The 2018 earthquake was certainly a wakeup call for the port. It occurred about 10 miles north of Anchorage, registering 7.1 on the Richter scale. Twenty percent of the pilings at a dock built in 1974 at the Port of Alaska—the newest one at the port—failed. “Had it continued for another 7 seconds,’’ a report in reported, “widespread liquefaction could have occurred, possibly leading to a total failure and collapse of one or more of the port docks.”

The PCT is a pile-support dock that is designed to last 75 years, with the ability to survive a 1,000-year seismic event (i.e., an earthquake of a magnitude that has 0.1 percent chance of happening in any given year). 

One interesting aspect to help limit potential earthquake damage was the installation of three roof hatches on the trestle, an unusual application for the hatches. Manufactured by BILCO, a manufacturer of specialty access products, the hatches are 10 x 20 feet. Due to the size, the leaves needed to be shipped separately and assembled on site. Fully assembled, the hatches weight about 2,500 pounds. The hatches allow access to fuel piping expansion joints. 

“The hatches were specified to shelter containment pans, which are installed to prevent environmental contamination should the piping expansion joints fail in a seismic event,’’ says Brett Gunderson of Haskell Corporation, a mechanical and structural subcontractor. “The hatches also allow access to the expansion joints should they need to be replaced.” 

Gunderson adds: We also chose BILCO because the hatches were large, and we knew that BILCO would design and fabricate them to operate easily and safely.” 


Constructing the PCT was an important first step. The terminal it replaced—the Petroleum Oil Lubricants Terminal 1—had reached the end of service life, which had been forecast for only 35 years. It was also Alaska’s only dock equipped with a pneumatic bulk cement unloading and transfer system.

Ninety-five percent of the state’s refined petroleum products enter through the Anchorage-based port. Nearly all the jet fuel required by Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson military facility also enters through the Port of Alaska. 

Furthermore, ships have become much larger since the Port of Alaska was built in the early 1960s. “The dock is more than a half century old, is worn out and needs to be replaced,’’ says Jim Jager, director of Business Continuity and External Affairs at the Port of Alaska. “Climate, tides and seismic conditions all play a part. Cargo handling was much different when this port was built. We’re working with a facility that was built for shipping in the 1960’s and 70’s. Technologies have changed, cargo ships have gotten bigger, taller, and wider. We’re limiting the number of vessels that can dock here.”


“We are a small port, but that’s a function of Alaska being a relatively small state,’’ Jager says. “The size of the facility is never going to be one of the nation’s largest ports. But we do have critical roles, in the state, nation, and even internationally. We are incredibly important to the commerce and economic health of many people. This modernization project is something we need to get done. The port is essential to our economy.” 

About the Author:

Thomas Renner writes on building, construction, architecture and other trade industry topics for publications throughout the United States.

Modern Contractor Solutions, November 2022
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