EDITORIAL: Safety first…finally

Thursday, May 17, 2012 - 04:26

We applaud the recent decision by the municipality to close the Eklutna River Bridge.

You don’t have to be an engineer to know that the rusted structure on the Old Glenn Highway is unsafe for vehicles. Rust covers much of the steel span, and officials said they did not trust the guardrails to keep a vehicle from plunging into the river below. A quick peek beneath the bridge reveals a crumbling support structure, with at least one support piece broken and hanging free in the air.

State funding has been secured to finance a replacement, and the bridge is now closed to both vehicles and pedestrians. After some modifications, the muni says it will reopen the span to bicycles and pedestrians — a good compromise that will allow hikers and bikers to get some continued use out of the old bridge.

While the right decision has finally been made on the bridge, we can’t help but wonder why it took so long for government officials to make the decision.

In 2010, the Alaska Department of Transportation found the bridge to be unsafe after an inspection found significant structural deficiencies. In light of that report, the municipality put up signs lowering the weight limit on the bridge, but neighborhood residents reported that big trucks continued to use the crossing.

In November 2011, locals were so concerned with the state of the bridge that the Chugiak-Birchwood-Eagle River Rural Road Service Area Board voted unanimously to recommend closing the bridge. Even though locals would be the ones most inconvenienced by the closure, residents felt like the trouble of going around the bridge was worth preventing a tragedy.

With public sentiment strongly in favor of closing it — and a state report warning of the dangers of keeping it open — the municipality should have closed the bridge immediately.

Instead, officials said they needed more time to study the situation. A public meeting was held, where locals again said they had no problem with the bridge closing. Still, the muni waited.

Finally, last month, the Alaska Legislature announced it would pony up $14 million to help finance a new bridge. Shortly after, the muni said it was closing the bridge for good.

If the municipality knew that the bridge was unsafe, why did it take until after funds for a replacement were lined for it to be closed?

A state report and overwhelming public sentiment couldn’t close the Eklutna River Bridge. Only the assurance that state money would help solve the problem for the municipality did.

Officials should not have played such a dangerous waiting game with public safety. If a tragedy had occurred while the muni twiddled its thumbs, we would all be on the hook for what would certainly be a very expensive — and very justified — lawsuit.

We’re glad the bridge is finally closed. It’s a decision that was long overdue.

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