Frequently Asked Questions
Alaska residents, visitors, and businesses have asked some important questions throughout this project. The following presents a summary of frequently asked questions.
Click on a question below to read the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities' response.
|Name of the new Road|
Classifying vehicles is needed for two reasons: First, the tunnel operators need to be able to direct a particular type of vehicle to the proper staging lane to segregate vehicles. Cars, recreational vehicles (RVs), busses, and trucks must be segregated for safe tunnel operation. (See the "Vehicles waiting at the staging area" question and response below regarding vehicle order when entering the tunnel.) Second, DOT&PF classifies vehicles according to the toll schedule. See the Tolls page on this website for toll rates.
Although the maximum height of the tunnel at the center of the road is 22.0 feet, the tunnel is only 15.0 feet high at the curb. In addition, the road surface is offset to accommodate a 3-foot-wide emergency sidewalk, which limits the useable width of the tunnel.
Class E vehicles are more than 10.0 feet wide or 14.0 feet high, but not more than 11.0 feet wide and 15.0 feet high. Vehicles larger than this would scrape the tunnel. Special hours of operation are established by schedule to accommodate Class E vehicles. During these periods, the speed limit may be reduced, drivers will receive special instructions, and the tunnel staff will direct and assist the larger vehicles as needed. These special requirements ensure that oversized vehicles will not scrape the sides or crown of the tunnel. Also, by segregating these large vehicles from the general public, the likelihood of a traffic accident between oversized and small vehicles is reduced.
To enhance safety, vehicles will travel through the tunnel according to vehicle class. Each vehicle class will be metered into the tunnel at different time intervals (2.5 seconds to 45 seconds). The distance between commercial trucks will be greater than the distance between cars because commercial trucks have a greater potential fire load than cars. If a commercial truck were to catch fire, this distance would keep the fire from spreading to another truck in the tunnel. Busses also will travel through the tunnel at longer intervals because busses, like commercial trucks, have a greater potential fire load than cars. Also, the number of busses in the tunnel at any one time needs to be limited so there is always ample room in the safe houses if people must evacuate their vehicles.
Tunnel operating procedures require commercial trucks to travel through the tunnel last for a number of reasons. If a commercial truck, which has a greater fire load, catches on fire, it is important to have the fewest possible number of vehicles and people stopped behind it in the tunnel. This can only occur if cars and busses clear the tunnel before trucks. In addition, commercial trucks do not accelerate as fast as cars, and they are less maneuverable than cars. It is possible that a slow moving truck would slow down all the vehicles behind it and make it less likely that the maximum number of people would move through the tunnel during an opening. Moreover, diesel engines normally associated with commercial trucks produce less carbon monoxide than cars. By having these vehicles toward the ends of the opening, less time may be needed to purge carbon monoxide from the tunnel, which would result in an increase in the number of vehicles that can drive through the tunnel.
Automobiles and trains take turns traveling through the tunnel. Two sophisticated computer systems using fail-safe technology ensure that trains and cars are never in the tunnel at the same time. In addition, train track switches are used to direct trains away from the tunnel before the tunnel is allowed to be open for highway traffic.
The Schedule page on this website notes the times during the day when highway vehicles will use the tunnel. Because train schedules will vary, please allow yourself 15 - 30 minutes extra time in case traffic is delayed by train usage.
The Alaska Railroad is working to schedule most of its freight trains during the evening hours when the tunnel is closed to vehicle traffic. However, during the day train may run in the 15-minute periods between traffic openings to transport passengers and freight. Although regularly scheduled barges run out of Seattle and Prince Rupert, this schedule can often change due to factors beyond its control (weather in the Gulf of Alaska). The tunnel must maintain these flexible time slots in order to facilitate the passage of trains and to minimize delays to tunnel users.
The Alaska Railroad typpically uses less than 20% of these time slots. When these time slots are not in use by trains they may be used by the tunnel operator for the passage of additional vehicles during peak and high volume traffic openings. Please consult the Schedule page on the website for a list of available openings.
The tunnel is open from 5:30 a.m. until 11:15 p.m. during the summer months.
In the winter the tunnel is open Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., Monday through Thursday from 8:40 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., on Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 6:45 p.m., and on Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m.
See the Schedule page on this web site for more information. The DOT&PF reevaluates the hours of operation each year, but only changes the schedule when it better accommodate the needs of the public.
Bicycles and pedestrians are not allowed in the tunnel for the following reasons: First, if a bicyclist were to travel the tunnel, the rail flange ways (2-inch-wide-by-2-inch-deep grooves adjacent to the rails) would pose a safety hazard. Second, the vehicle detection and surveillance systems that track all highway vehicles cannot reliably detect bicyclists and pedestrians and would not adequately ensure that the tunnel is clear before allowing trains to use the tunnel. Third, bicycles and pedestrians move too slowly through the tunnel to work within the limited time available to provide changes of highway directions every half-hour. Fourth, the tunnel is not wide enough for vehicles to safely pass pedestrians and bicycles.
Drivers can transport a total of 12.0 gallons of fuel in portable containers (two 6-gallon portable containers) through the tunnel. This limit is less restrictive than the regulations the Alaska Railroad had on the shuttle service. Drivers can also transport portable containers of propane up to a maximum combined total of 100 lbs.
Tolls are charged at the tunnel. The revenue from toll is use to maintain and operate the tunnel, as well as pay for improvements to the facility.
The City of Whittier is maximizing the available parking areas. There is parking available at the Harbor and in the private lot at Whittier Creek. Additional parking will become available as Whittier develops.
The tunnel facility is designed with multiple safety features. Two computer systems ensure that automobiles and trains will not enter the tunnel at the same time. In fact, before the tunnel is placed in the highway mode, the train tracks will be switched to diversion tracks. The Tunnel Control System automatically monitors each individual vehicle as it travels through the tunnel. The system includes more than 60 closed-circuit video cameras to provide coverage of the entire tunnel and staging areas. The entire facility has state-of-the-art emergency detection and response capability, based on the latest design advances from the United States and Europe.
During the six years of operations there has been only one accident involving a car. When compared to other roads within Alaska and around the country, and considering the number of vehicles that have used the tunnel, it proves to be very safe.
Drivers must be aware, however, that they are traveling through a space that has limited clearance on both sides. Drivers must be alert, obey the posted speed limits and keep on course throughout the staging areas and tunnel. In addition, drivers should not place their wheels directly on the rail because the rails can be slippery and the rail grooves may affect steering control.
Bear Valley and Whittier can experience winds that exceed 50 mph. These winds often appear with little warning and no prior weather prediction.
From an economic and geographic standpoint, Whittier represents the Alaska Railroad's only viable freight interchange point for its barge service connecting Alaska with the lower 48 states and Canada. Seward and Anchorage are not viable port alternatives for barge interline service. Anchorage is not free of ice year-round and Seward requires traveling over a mountain pass at a 3% grade (it would take six locomotives to haul a heavy load from Seward versus two from Whittier). Whittier is a year-round, ice-free, deep-water port. It is located only 50 miles from Anchorage and has slight grades for trains and engines. For these reasons, all the Alaska Railroad's railcars, locomotives, and rail-borne freight must enter and depart via Whittier.
While the Alaska Railroad runs regularly scheduled barges out of Seattle and Prince Rupert, this schedule can often change due to factors beyond the Alaska Railroad's control (weather in the Gulf of Alaska). The Alaska Railroad is working to schedule most of its freight service during the evening hours when the tunnel is closed to vehicle traffic, but it needs a time available during the day on certain days to service the barges. The Alaska Railroad also must use the tunnel during the day to accommodate passenger trains from Anchorage.
The Alaska Railroad will use only those slots required for its train operations. Most of the time slot between openings will be used, if needed, for highway operations.
The Alaska Railroad no longer offers a shuttle service to Whittier. They do maintain passenger service from Anchorage to Whittier as part of their tourism service. For more information, visit the Alaska Railroad's website at www.akrr.com or call (800) 544-0552.
You can access the Alaska Railroad's website at www.akrr.com or reach the Alaska Railroad by calling (800) 544-0552.
This project extended the existing Portage Glacier Highway from the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center to Whittier. Thus, the name for the time being remains the Portage Glacier Highway. Renaming the Portage Glacier Highway can only be accomplished through the state's legislative process.
The project represents a long-term goal to better connect Whittier to the rest of Alaska. A port for the Alaska Marine Highway System since the 1960s, Whittier has never had a direct link to the highway system. The Alaska Railroad has linked the "highways" on both sides of the mountain by shuttling automobiles on flatcars through the tunnel. Earlier this year, the Federal Railroad Administration issued regulations that will require all vehicles to be secured and all passengers to leave their vehicles and ride in a passenger rail car. In addition, Whittier residents, weekend recreators, truckers, commercial fishermen, the tourism industry, and many others expressed the desire for more convenient and less expensive access to beautiful Prince William Sound and Whittier. After numerous economic and engineering studies over the years, a cost-effective solution—a dual use tunnel—was found that could be built with the funding available. The solution is also consistent with the volumes of railroad and highway traffic expected. This is a unique system, but it meets all the requirements for a safe and workable installation. It is designed and constructed to benefit all Alaskans, and to provide the convenient and affordable access to Whittier that people have long sought.
Anton Anderson was the chief engineer for the project that brought rail access to Whittier. Mr. Anderson came to Alaska in 1919, where he served as the location engineer for the Matanuska Valley colonization project, engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, chief engineer for the Alaska Railroad, and mayor of Anchorage. The tunnel was dedicated to him in 1976 for his long service to Alaska and the Alaska Railroad.
It takes approximately 6 minutes at 25 MPH to travel through the tunnel.