Is commuter rail needed in Alaska?
What is commuter rail? Commuter rail is regular train service from suburban and outlying areas to urban areas.
What would commuter rail look like in Alaska? Year-round weekday service on existing train tracks, operated by the Alaska Railroad, connecting the Matsu Valley (communities of Palmer and Wasilla, with a total borough population of ~ 107,000 is the fastest-growing area of the state) with Anchorage ( ~ 291,000 residents, Alaska’s largest city, business hub, and busiest airport on the planet), and serving the communities of Eklutna, Birchwood and Eagle River in between.
Do people want it? There have been several studies, dating back to 1979. Based on the number of studies, news articles, op-eds and presentations on the topic, there is public interest. There have been multiple attempts to get it off the ground, the most recent of which was 2018, by (then) Governor Walker’s Commuter Rail Advisory Task Force.
Would people use it? According to the Anchorage Municipality over 14,000 people commute every day from the Matsu to Anchorage and “with skyrocketing gas prices, demand for transit has never been higher. Park-and-ride lots in the Valley are at overflow, the popular Share-a-Van program has a 700-person waiting list, and Anchorage and Mat-Su buses are seeing double-digit ridership growth. Existing commuter services are at capacity, and demand has quickly outpaced supply.” A 2009 commuter rail ridership forecast looked at five different scenarios and projected between 600 and 1600 riders per weekday in 2020. The scenarios varied by the number of stations, with a maximum of nine, and a maximum transit time of 1 hour and 18 minutes from end to end. The nine stations included:
- Matanuska (Glenn Highway / Parks Highway Interchange)
- Eagle River
- Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport
Are there comparable commuter rails? There are more than 30 commuter rail services in the United States; the WES Commuter Rail in Portland consists of 5 stations, covers 15 miles of track, and carries an average of 1,600 riders per weekday.
What are the benefits of commuter rail?
According to the Commuter Rail Coalition:
- Commuter Rail is the safest form of transportation.
- Commuter Rail service supports economic development and grows a tax base by providing access to metropolitan centers.
- Commuter Rail facilitates the talent demands of employers through safe, environmentally sound transportation to jobs.
- Commuter Rail provides a city’s workforce with access to more affordable housing beyond the city center.
- Using Commuter Rail can prevent the adverse health effects attributable to driving in rush hour traffic.
- By removing cars from roadways, Commuter Railroads reduce the carbon footprint of riders, and spare remaining drivers even worse roadway congestion.
How much would commuter rail cost? In 2018, the Commuter Rail Advisory Task Force issued its initial findings and recommendations letter, with “full pilot program cost estimated at $8.2 million (annual operating) and $7 million (initial capital), with funding coming from state or local sources” for 6-month service from October 15 to April 15 using the Alaska Railroad existing passenger rail equipment.
What is preventing it from happening? A combination of political will and funding. The Commuter Rail Advisory Task Force was rescinded in 2019 by Governor Dunleavy.
What are the potential funding opportunities? There is a federal grant open right now (application deadline is Nov 29, 2021) that is part of President Biden’s $2 trillion dollar infrastructure bill that is potentially funding other commuter rail projects around the country.
What are the key resources?
Questions or comments?
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Matsu – Anchorage Commuter Rail in Numbers
first commuter rail study
people commute from Matsu to Anchorage every day
maximum projected riders per weekday (in 2009)
estimated funding for pilot program (in 2018)