This week, officials from the Alaska Railroad and the Mat-Su Borough walked with area residents through the area the railroad intends to develop into its new section facility in Talkeetna. KTNA’s Phillip Manning was there:
Earlier this month, the Alaska Railroad announced plans to move some of its operations from Downtown to East Talkeetna. The railroad plans to use a lot it owns just on the east side of the tracks. When Alaska Railroad Facilities Manager Paul Farnsworth told the Talkeetna Community Council about the planned development, some people expressed concern. This week, Farnsworth led a walk of the proposed development site. Multiple area residents attended, as did Mat-Su Borough Code Compliance Officer and Talkeetna Floodplain Manager Pamela Ness.
Farnsworth started the discussion by stating why the railroad wants to move its operations across the tracks.
“We actually intend to put a fence along the west side of the tracks and make downtown, downtown. Right now, all my people and our section trucks, when they leave downtown, they drive right out into the middle of that loop around the park. All of those activities that you see downtown on the west side, that will move into here.”
In addition, Paul Farnsworth says there is a safety risk associated with pedestrians crossing tracks near Downtown Talkeetna, where there is not currently a substantial barrier to foot traffic.
After concerns were raised earlier this month, he also says he has found some areas where tree clearing will not have to be as extensive as was originally planned. Farnsworth says an area about 150 feet long will be clear-cut to the tracks. After that, any further development, if necessary, would have a thirty foot buffer of trees between it and the railroad tracks.
The most common concern raised at both the Talkeetna Community Council meeting and during Wednesday’s walk is flooding. East Talkeetna has seen significant floods twice in just over a decade. As the group walked into the woods, local business owner Mike Stoltz expressed concern that building the railroad’s lot up would divert water into East Talkeetna.
“You see how far down you just stepped? Our concern is where is that water—I don’t know if you’ve been here in a flood, but where you have those orange marks is where the water table goes.”
Pamela Ness says the Mat-Su Borough also wants answers with regard to what filling in up to
two acres near the railroad would mean in the next high-water event.
“Here’s the question everyone asking: Where is the water going to go when you fill it up, where is it going to be displaced, how high is it going to get, and who is it going to affect? We’re very cognizant of that. The last thing we want to do is increase any damage or risk to any properties here or in [Downtown] Talkeetna.”
Ness says the Alaska Railroad has submitted a floodplain application, but that more information on the volume of fill is needed before hydrological models can be run. Once the borough does its analysis, a third-party hydrologist will conduct an additional review. Pamela Ness says that process could take up to a month from the time that the railroad provides all of the relevant data.
Other concerns raised include the potential for burial sites at or near the project’s location. Paul Farnsworth says the Alaska Railroad is working with the State Historic Preservation Office to ensure that cultural sites are protected.
Another common question is why the project is going forward at a location still close to Downtown Talkeetna. One site that some would prefer is Woodpecker Road. Farnsworth says moving the communication and signals equipment to Woodpecker would be costly. In fact, the building housing the equipment is one of the few things that will stay in its current location.
“I’ve got to leave the building there, and that’s what makes this place so valuable is all my comms in there. It costs a million dollars to take comms somewhere else; it’s real expensive.”
While Pamela Ness says it is possible the borough could grant permission to clear trees before final permit approval, Paul Farnsworth says the Alaska Railroad does not intend to move forward until the process is complete.