Decision coming on Eklutna River Bridge closure

Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 20:00
Vakalis to make up mind before summer traffic

A decision whether or not to close the deteriorating Eklutna River Bridge will be made in the next month, Anchorage Municipal Manager George Vakalis said during a public meeting Feb. 23 at Mirror Lake Middle School.

Vakalis said a decision needs to come before the bridge sees increased traffic from summer tourists.

Vakalis gave three options for the bridge at the meeting, which the Municipality held to get public input before making a final decision. He said the Municipality can completely close the structure, close it to vehicular traffic and allow pedestrian traffic and left a third option open to anyone with other ideas.

The roughly 30 in attendance each received a card with room to write in their suggestions.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities imposed weight restrictions on the bridge after conducting an inspection in September 2010.

The maximum weight for a two-axle vehicle is six tons, said John Smith, project manager of the Project Management and Engineering department.

DOT is inspecting the bridge again in May, Vakalis said. Should DOT lower the limit for two-axle vehicles to three tons, the bridge would have to be closed due to federal regulations, Smith said in an interview Feb. 24.

“If it were to drop down to three tons, that would trigger the permanent closure by law,” he said.

The load limit prohibits all commercial vehicle traffic and signs are posted at the bridge located just north of the Thunderbird Falls trailhead parking lot. However, as one resident at the meeting said, “The signage doesn’t mean a thing to the average citizen.”

Municipal traffic engineer Stephanie Mormilo said an easy-to-read sign for the average resident could be posted within a month, but gave no specific timeline for when one would be placed at the bridge. The sign will be moot should Vakalis decide to close the bridge in the next 30 days.

The Chugiak/Birchwood/Eagle River Rural Road Service Area Board (CBERRRSA) has been seeking state money to repair the bridge since the Municipality assumed ownership of it in 1985, said Eagle River Street Maintenance general foreman Mark Littlefied.

When an audience member asked, “Why wait for a failure?” to close the bridge, Smith responded: “It’s a matter of funding.”

Assembly chair Debbie Ossiander, of Chugiak, said she’s been working on a solution her entire time in office.

“I’ve been trying to figure out an answer for this bridge for eight years,” she said.

One reason Ossiander gave for the length of time that’s passed without securing any funding for the bridge was most people are unfamiliar with the structure.

“It doesn’t get the red flashing light status,” she said.

Ossiander urged Chugiak-Eagle River residents to attend CBERRSA meetings, as she and fellow Assembly member Bill Starr, of Eagle River, make their road-related recommendations based on the road board.

Ossiander said the past two to three years she’s urged the state to reassume control of the bridge. The state owned the bridge from when it was constructed in 1935 until 1978, when Eklutna Inc. purchased it for $1. Eklutna Inc. sold it to the Municipality seven years later for the same price.

Ossiander cited the Municipality’s lack of bridge knowledge as a reason to return it to the state.

“We don’t have a lot of bridge experts in the city,” she said. “How do you measure it against overcrowding on the Seward Highway?”

Today, the bridge can support half the weight it could when first constructed. A center arch was added in 1950, and it was widened from one to two lanes two years later.

DOT has said replacing the bridge would be cheaper than fixing it. Eight years ago, building a new bridge was estimated to cost $7 million, director of public works Ron Thompson said. An up-to-date estimate was not available at the meeting.

Though weight limits were imposed after an inspection in 1999, the Municipality thought the bridge could be repaired, Smith said. An expert in steel bridge rehabilitation from Pittsburgh consulted on the project, but the bridge couldn’t be brought up to standards and had its funding cut, he said.

“The project basically died,” Smith said.

The potential scenario of having the Eklutna overpass and Eklutna River Bridge closed simultaneously was also addressed.

The overpass’ northbound and southbound supports were damaged in two, separate collisions, DOT chief communications officer Brenda Hewitt said Tuesday, Feb. 28. The repair project is slated to begin this summer, she said, but did not give a specific date.

No one from DOT was present at the meeting.

If only the overpass is closed, Thompson said the Municipality couldn’t endorse letting the state use the Eklutna River Bridge as an alternate route during construction.

“It will not handle the load,” he said.


Contact Mike Nesper at 694-2727 or [email protected]

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