Potential railroad development draws criticism in Talkeetna

The area where the Alaska Railroad plans to move its operations currently located in Downtown Talkeetna.  Click to enlarge.

The area where the Alaska Railroad plans to move its operations currently located in Downtown Talkeetna. Click to enlarge.

At Monday’s Talkeetna Community Council, Inc. meeting, the Alaska Railroad announced a plan to move its operations from Downtown Talkeetna across the tracks, but the plan has some locals feeling railroaded. KTNA’s Phillip Manning has more:

 

Currently, the Alaska Railroad’s section house in Talkeetna is just off Main Street near the Village Park. The railroad is planning to move some of that infrastructure to a lot it owns in East Talkeetna.

Paul Farnsworth, facilities director for the railroad, says the current setup is simply not big enough for the scale of operations.

“It’s just gotten where it’s just not big enough for us any more. Typically, these facilities that we have in other places…amount to an acre or two acres depending on what we have going on there.”

Issues Farnsworth brings up include parking congestion from crews dispatching from Talkeetna to elsewhere along the rail and safety concerns stemming from people walking on the tracks where there’s easy access in downtown.

The plan is to partially clear a two-acre lot on the east side of the tracks along Terminal Avenue. Terminal Avenue is platted, but hasn’t been constructed except for a small section that leads onto F Street. Farnsworth says that lot would allow the railroad to relocate much of its maintenance and signals operation.

“What we’re planning to do there is to go in there and clear some land and move the operations that are down there, maintenance-away, our signal operations, crew staging, material storage, and that kind of thing…That would also take our parking [to East Talkeetna] for our crews.”

Paul Farnsworth says a fence, perhaps of wrought iron, would block the tracks near Downtown. The current building would have to stay for now, since Farnsworth says mission-critical equipment is inside it.   Eventually, he sees the possibility for wintertime boarding to take place at the north end of the summer depot.

While moving some of the railroad’s operations out of Downtown seems to sit well with Talkeetnans present at the meeting, the site chosen and quick turnaround do not meet with approval from some.

Any time potential large-scale tree clearing comes up, concerns for the visual character of Talkeetna generally follow. Paul Farnsworth says tree buffers will be left up except at access points in order to limit visibility from people driving or walking down the Spur Road. Talkeetna resident Brian Okonek is concerned about aesthetics of what he says could become an industrial site, and also the potential impacts on East Talkeetna the next time the rivers rise.

“It’s certainly going to put it above flood level, but it’s also going to displace water during a flood, and East Talkeetna already has a big enough problem with flood waters. You’re going to fill a significant amount of area that has in the past been flooded.”

The railroad-owned parcel to be developed does in fact lie in the flood zone according to the Mat-Su Borough’s maps. Paul Farnsworth says the Alaska Railroad would have to get a permit in order to raise terrain in the flood plain. He says that permit has been applied for. As of Wednesday, Mat-Su Borough floodplain manager and Code Compliance Officer Pamela Ness says she has not seen an application from the railroad for East Talkeetna.

Some present at the meeting suggested alternative sites, such as the railroad’s property near Woodpecker Road. Paul Farnsworth says that site lacks the necessary infrastructure for the railroad to do what it needs to do.

Lack of a detailed, written plan is also troubling to some community members. Farnsworth says the initial “bite” of the development would be about half of the two acres, and it might not need to go further than that. Ruth Wood is skeptical that the railroad would refrain from using the full two acres for materials storage in perpetuity.

“I do not want to see big things of granite and gravel. You say now, ‘We’re not going to store pipes and things.’ But, five years from now, you’re not here…and I frankly, unless there is something in writing that is airtight, I think it will turn into an industrial site.”

Since the railroad owns the property they plan to build on, the primary method for the council to try to slow the project down is through the borough’s floodplain permit. TCCI board member Paul Button says even a somewhat minor change in elevation on the lot could mean significant consequences in the next flood.

“Floodplains are a game of inches, and it’s pretty likely that when they finish with their pad…it will not be in the floodplain. Therein lies the potential for quite a bit of problems with diversion from where water would have gone to where it is now going to run.”

The TCCI board voted unanimously to send a letter to the Mat-Su Borough expressing concern over the floodplain issue.

 

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