With luck, by this time next year, visitors and residents in Anchor Point will be crossing a shiny new two-lane bridge to access the Old Sterling Highway and Anchor Point State Recreation Area.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, along with representatives from Solstice Alaska Consulting Inc., hosted a public open house Tuesday, Aug. 20, at the Anchor Point Senior Center to garner discussion and public opinion on the Anchor River Bridge replacement project. The project is in its very beginning stages, with the open house serving as the kickstart to ongoing public involvement throughout the process that may influence the final construction result.
“We are just gaining momentum with this project,” said Galen Jones, project manager and DOT&PF representative. “We are here to get comment and feedback before we even put plans together.”
According to its preliminary concept, the new Anchor River Bridge will be uncovered, have two 11-foot-wide traffic lanes, and add 6-foot-wide shoulders that will allow pedestrians and non-motorized users to cross over the bridge more safely. Because the new bridge will be built according to modern design standards, it will also no longer impose height or weight restrictions, which will better allow access to large trucks, vehicles towing boat trailers and school buses. Recently, school buses have been forced to take a detour route to transport students living on the Old Sterling Highway, as they are unable to cross the existing bridge due to the height and weight restrictions.
The new bridge may also benefit Anchor Point and the greater Homer area by serving as a backup route in the event that the Sterling Highway experiences an emergency shut down.
The preliminary bridge concept is based on standard designs and available funding and is subject to change, particularly as the project members apply for necessary permits. Environmental documentation began approximately in January of this year and is expected to continue through the fall. The design and engineering stage began around March and will continue through the winter, possibly into January 2020.
“We’re probably at about 50-60% of our design right now,” Jones said. “I think what we have (now) has a high chance of (being) how the bridge will end up being built.”
Project team members hope to begin construction by the summer of 2020 and be finished by October of the same year. Fulfillment of this schedule is contingent on the environmental review process, as well as acquisition of the necessary permits and certifications.
The Anchor River Bridge replacement project will be federally funded, costing approximately $10-12 million, with the state matching 9% of the total cost.
“There’s a (federal) funding appropriation we received from the state legislature that needs to be spent in this next fiscal year. As long as we obligate that money — which means we have to have our finished design, all our environmental permits, and the project has to be certified by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) — we will receive that federal funding,” Jones said.
In addition to the new bridge construction, DOT&PF plans to elevate sections of the Old Sterling within the project limits in order to reduce the likelihood of seasonal floods overtopping the highway and cutting off safe access.
One of the main concerns voiced by open house attendees was the degree to which they would be able to access the Old Sterling Highway and state recreation area, particularly because construction is currently scheduled for the summer of 2020.
“The most frequent question we heard today was all about access,” said Robin Reich, public involvement agent from Solstice Alaska Consulting, Inc. “There’s going to be a temporary bridge built during construction. It seems like folks have been pretty happy to hear that.”
The existing bridge would be closed during construction, according to the open house presentation, but DOT would install a temporary two-way bridge to which traffic flow would be diverted. Fishing would be restricted on the river immediately under the construction area, and trail access to the Anchor River fishing and recreation area may be temporarily restricted. However, the Silver King campground and parking lot will remain open during construction, though noise impacts are expected during construction hours.
“The temporary bridge is going to be built to be able to handle … fishing boats,” said Solstice Alaska Consulting representative Carrie Connaker. “Trail access is not going to be completely cut off, even though there’s construction right there. We know the state recreation area is important and we have heard a lot of sensitivities around that. It’s going to be controlled access.”
Another concern was voiced regarding the potential impact of construction on salmon in the Anchor River within the project limits.
“We have to get a permit from (the Alaska Department of) Fish and Game if we’re working in the water at all. We’re going to try and stay out of the water as much as possible,” said Connaker. “It should be fairly minimal impacts to salmon. Also there are … windows where you can’t do construction, when (salmon) are spawning or when the juveniles are in the water. We’re definitely going to follow those windows.”
The iconic single-lane Anchor River Bridge was built in 1942 and “has been retrofitted several times to extend its lifespan,” according to the open house presentation on Aug. 20. Most recently, in September 2018, workers replaced rotting wood timbers that supported the bridge abutment with concrete walls. However, DOT&PF officials at the time stated that the bridge would ultimately need to be replaced.
At 77 years old, the Anchor River Bridge has more than surpassed its expected lifespan. One of the most-asked questions DOT &PF got from Anchor Point locals was why they couldn’t just repair the bridge again, rather than replacing the entire structure. Aside from the current bridge being well beyond its prime, Jones explained that further repairs on the existing bridge would have to be revisited multiple times within the lifespan of a new bridge.
“We’ve done a life cycle cost analysis on rehabilitating the existing bridge, to keep that historic bridge in place,” Jones said. “The lifespan of a new bridge would be 75 years. If we were to rehabilitate this one, it would last 25 years. So we’d have to rehabilitate it three times for the life cycle of a new bridge. It would be the same cost to build a new bridge as it would to rehabilitate it once. So we would have to spend three times as much.”
Reinforcing the existing bridge would also not solve the issues presented by its single lane or the imposed height and weight restrictions.
If the current bridge is not replaced in the near future, “it’ll reach a certain point where we can no longer maintain it and we’ll have to shut it down,” said DOT&PF Environmental Analyst Heidi Zimmer. “What we really don’t want is to have a failure.”
Public input is highly encouraged by DOT&PF throughout the course of the bridge replacement project. To learn more about the project, receive progress and schedule updates, or to submit questions and feedback, visit the project website at dot.alaska.gov/creg/anchor-river.
Delcenia Cosman is a freelance writer living in Anchor Point.