It's Possible, but is it Affordable?
Though some might call the current proposal for a Bering Straits Tunnel a crazy idea, that is an outdated view. This does not mean, however, that the idea should escape thorough evaluation. Among the many issues that need to be examined, there are two of particular note:
The first is financial soundness. The Euro Tunnel, popularly known as the "Chunnel" -- half the length of this proposed Bering Straits tunnel and connecting huge European population centers -- is on the verge of coming out of bankruptcy for, I believe, the third time. This chronic financial weakness was initially attributable largely to construction cost overruns, which left it saddled with high debt service. In addition, its passenger services have not been able to compete as effectively as forecasted with the airlines, a number of which are newer low-cost carriers, and the freight services that use the Chunnel are not robust enough to bridge the revenue gap. Adding to these problems, the Chunnel has incurred much higher operating costs in recent years for security and preventing illegal immigration.
The second issue for a Bering Straits Tunnel is the Jones Act, a law affecting the U.S. maritime industry. At a conference in 2005, then Governor of Alaska (and former U.S. Senator) Mike Murkowski strongly promoted connecting Alaska to the Lower 48 by a rail corridor through Canada. His rationale: it is politically impossible to modify the Jones Act, which makes coastal shipping uneconomical because it restricts cabotage (sailing from one U.S. port to another to deliver freight or passengers) by foreign vessels, thus requiring uneconomically costly U.S. bottoms and U.S. crews for American domestic coastal shipping. The question is, will the U.S. Congress be able to take on maritime labor unions and the Jones Act in the name of efficient transportation? If the Jones Act were amended to remove the cabotage restriction -- which is not likely but perhaps not impossible -- it would reduce the amount of freight flowing on an Alaska-to-Lower-48 rail line, perhaps to the point of making the rail line uneconomic.
These economic issues are much more challenging than the technical ones, and both must be resolved if a Bering Straits Tunnel is to move forward.
Tom Till is managing director of Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center for Regional Development, a non-profit regional transportation initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Mr. Till managed major transportation investment projects in the former Soviet Union for both the World Bank and the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Click on the extended post to read an Anchorage Daily News story about the proposed tunnel project.
The proposed Bering Straits tunnel would link Asia and North America
Russia-Alaska Link - A Bering Strait Tunnel
By Sabra Ayres, Anchorage Daily News Reporter
Published: April 21, 2007
JUNEAU -- A proposal for another big construction project is gathering headlines across the world.
No, we're not talking about a $30 billion pipeline to send natural gas to the Lower 48.
This is bigger: A $10 billion to $12 billion tunnel under the Bering Strait linking Alaska and Russia. And another $50 billion to lay railways to make the tunnel usable.
The proponents of the 64-mile tunnel are not working off an original idea. Over the past 150 years, at least one Russian czar and several American entrepreneurs have devised plans for linking the continents.
The latest Russian concept is a tunnel tying Russia's Chukotka to Alaska's Cape Prince of Wales as part of a hoped-for continuous railway from London to New York. More than 6,000 miles of new rail lines -- about half laid in Siberia and the remainder in Alaska and Canada -- would connect the railheads on both sides. Siberian oil, gas, hydroelectric power and fiber optic cable could be exported through pipes built beside the high-speed rail service, they said.
But something is different about this current proposal, backers of the plan say, and it's not just modern technology. Some say it's the tolerant nod of approval the Russian government has given to hosting a conference next week on the tunnel project.Others say it's the momentum the idea has gained from media attention this week.
Maybe it's just timing: Russia's economy is booming, thanks to high world oil prices that have poured billions into the Russia treasury after 15 years of a difficult, post-Soviet transition.
In Alaska, a new governor promising to get the state a profitable natural gas pipeline has spurred some to think about fresh starts. But it could just be kindred spirits finding common ground on dreaming big. Russia, the largest country in the world, once tried to reverse river flows to better irrigate crops.
Alaskans have seen their fair share of mega projects, too, including the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Former Gov. Wally Hickel has long been a champion of big, transforming projects. Hickel is one of the Bering Strait tunnel project's most serious supporters. He said he plans to attend the conference next week in Moscow to watch a plan he has been behind for some 25 years finally find the support it deserves.
"You know how to build a gas line? Just build it," Hickel said. "Big projects are what civilizations need. Just to let the world know you can do it."
The tunnel idea resurfaced last week when a long-time advocate of the project, Viktor Razbegin, a deputy at the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, announced the Moscow conference and invited several American and Canadian enthusiasts. Razbegin, Hickel and members of the aptly named Interhemispheric Bering Strait Tunnel & Railroad Group have been coordinating on the project since the late 1990s.
Enthusiasm aside, the current idea, like those in the past, is meeting skepticism.
Experts have said construction in the icy Bering Strait is possible, but finding funding will be difficult.
The Russians will need to complete a huge amount of rail lines to reach the remote Chukotka region, currently only accessible by plane or boat.
"I don't mean to diminish this, but a connection to Russia through Alaska any time soon is probably no more valid than the idea that we are going to send a manned mission to Mars," said Bruce Carr, the Alaska Railroad's strategic planning director.
The state-owned Alaska Railroad has been studying the possibility of connecting to Canada's rails for more than 60 years, Carr added. The U.S. government has shown little interest in the project.
"It would be safe to say that no one here has ever heard of this thing," said Janelle Hironimus, a spokeswoman for the State Department.
Several of Russia's deputy ministers are scheduled to attend the conference, but Kremlin officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have been reluctant to throw their full weight behind it.
Still, the Russian side of the project has put on a remarkable un-Russian PR campaign ahead of the conference, said Joe Henri, an Anchorage developer and a member of the Interhemispheric Bering Strait Tunnel group. Russian organizers said the tunnel would help develop the remote Far East, where there are untapped stores of natural resources. The state-owned electricity, railway and energy pipeline companies are listed as conference sponsors.
By late this week, stories from London to Ottawa popped up in the media and on the Internet.
Bloggers began having a field day. "Bering Strait Tunnel Project: OMG! Ultimate Road Trip!" one headlined.
Henri said the interest is a big change for a plan that has been called crazy.
But will attention and the Moscow conference move the project along?
"Biggest thing now is to form a corporation, get some Russian money, sell some stock and raise money for a feasibility study," he said.
Daily News reporter Sabra Ayres can be reached at email@example.com or 1-907-586-1531.