U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg joined U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski on an Alaska state ferry on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023 during his first visit to Southeast Alaska. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Transportation

In the midst of a three-day whirlwind first visit to Alaska, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg toured the Port of Alaska in Anchorage on Tuesday, confirming that there is nothing like seeing it yourself to understand the challenges facing the facility critical to the state’s economy.

Buttigieg got an earful of information on the needs of the port — into which flow 90% of food and other products critical to the state’s wellbeing — and the need for renovation and upgrades for the facility.

The port, built in 1961, has survived two major earthquakes and more than 60 years of challenging weather, plus the impact of 30-foot tides, glacial silt deposits, and iron-eating microbes that have damaged portions of the port’s foundation.

“I don’t think that iron-eating microbes are a consideration in most places that we do infrastructure projects, 30-foot tides or glacial silt deposits. But that’s the reality here,” Buttigieg said during a news conference at the port.

The microbes are iron-oxidizing and chemotrophic bacteria, which get their energy by oxidizing dissolved iron. Buttigieg also learned about challenges in keeping the Cook Inlet waters around the port safe for endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales.

Deputy director for programs and policy and security officer for the Port of Anchorage Jim Jager, left, explains various aspects of Port of Alaska facilities to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, during his visit to the port on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. Photo by Margaret Bauman

Buttigieg arrived fresh from a tour of Kotzebue, in Northwest Alaska, where he learned about the high cost of goods and services in Arctic Alaska, including transportation construction projects. On Wednesday he traveled to Southeast Alaska with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to see several sites, ride on an Alaska state ferry, and visit a Haines dock that received a $20 million federal grant. The pair was also supposed to ride seaplanes to see more of Southeast, but Murkowski posted on Facebook that they had to cancel their flights due to adverse weather conditions.

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During a five-hour ferry trip, Buttigieg and Murkowski met with local tribal leaders, spoke with ferry employees and announced a new Alaska Marine Highway route designation, which will help expand shipping and ferry routes throughout the state.

Buttigieg noted that the transportation agency was only able to fund a fraction of funding requests coming to Washington D.C. but noted that the projects and idea behind all those requests came from applicants rather than the federal agency.

“Safety is always the top priority,” he said.

Buttigieg said that under the leadership of U.S. President Joe Biden and with bipartisan support, his agency has been able to approve more projects and more funds to make them work than at any point of his life.

That list includes $68.7 million in grant funds made last fall for Port of Alaska modernization. Overall, the port modernization at Anchorage is anticipated to cost $1.8 billion over the next few years. The 2022 grant was the largest single grant made in all of that year by the Department of Transportation, Buttigieg said.

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