Alaska Railroad CEO takes a look back and forward

William G. O'Leary has served as president and chief executive officer for 10 years and is responsible for the daily management and operations of the Alaska Railroad Corporation. Here he gives his thoughts on the railroad's past and its future.

Looking back on the history of the railroad, what do you think were the most important decisions made that made the railroad so successful?

 One of the pivotal moments in Alaska Railroad history was its purchase by the state from the federal government in 1985. The late former Governor Bill Sheffield had great foresight into the opportunity that the $22 million purchase would mean for Alaska. That combination of grit, forethought and belief in the potential of the railroad helped make it what it is today. That decision set the railroad on a new track for infrastructure improvements and economic growth.

Another decision that has proven critical to the railroad's success is the model put in place after the purchase by the state. Establishing the Alaska Railroad Corporation as a self-sustaining enterprise wholly owned by the state, but with a separate existence from the state with a charge to act similar to a private business, has permitted the ARRC to respond to a competitive marketplace in a timely fashion.

As for the future, are there any plans for expansion of rail lines within the state or connecting to other rail lines to access the Lower 48?

There are three expansion projects at various stages of development.

In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the Port MacKenzie Rail Extension adds 32 miles of new rail line to connect to the borough's Port MacKenzie. Mat-Su Borough is a project sponsor and while much of the foundational infrastructure is complete, substantial capital is needed to complete the project – approximately $200 million.

Further north, the Northern Rail Extension would extend the rail line just over 80 miles from North Pole to Delta Junction. Phase 1 of the project was complete in 2014, building the Tanana River Bridge. Current estimates to complete the additional phases to Delta Junction is in the $1.5 billion range. While the Department of Defense and the State of Alaska were the main funding sources for initial planning and Phase 1, a public-private partnership may be explored as a future funding option.

Finally, the Alaska Canada Rail Corridor is a proposed rail network between Alaska and Canada. A private sector company recently invested significant funding in feasibility and detailed engineering phases for the project; however, the estimated rail corridor cost is around $30 billion. There are no current investors for this project.

What is your favorite part of your job?

It is knowing that the Alaska Railroad and its employees serve as a driver of economic growth for the state and its residents. We get the opportunity to provide visitors a window into the vastness, beauty and hospitality that is Alaska, while also ensuring residents receive the transportation, resources and commodities they need to continue developing their projects and businesses. Getting to be a part of that growth is my favorite part of this job.    

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