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The road to prosperity: state sees funding increase of nearly 50 percent.

You know the drill. If you have to drive anywhere in Alaska this summer, expect road work and traffic delays. The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has once again squeezed its annual construction program into a few hectic months.

However, there is a silver lining to this cloud of minor irritation: In total, more than $200 million in federal highway funds is being spent to improve and beautify the state's transportation system.

This summer, several hundred miles of roadway are being built or rehabilitated throughout the state, half a dozen bridges are being repaired, and 16 bridges in Southcentral Alaska are being retrofitted to withstand earthquakes. Plus countless trails, turnouts and pathways are being constructed. It's no wonder there are delays and detours. Then, of course, there is the 2-mile tunnel being bore through the mountains from Portage to Whittier to provide the first road access to that community since it was founded during World War II.

And, finally, a new ferry. The M/V Kennicott was added to the state's 8-vessel Alaska Marine Highway System, arriving about a month late, the result of construction delays blamed on El Nino. The Kennicott, named by a Glennallen 6th grader, was greeted with much hoopla as the first new vessel added to the fleet since 1977.


Paving the way for future projects in Alaska, Congress passed a new $203 billion highway funding program called the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21). Signed into law in June by President Clinton, this new funding formula will benefit Alaska by increasing the state's share of highway money by 47 percent. That's an average of nearly $312 million annually over the next six years.

"This act provides a tremendous opportunity for Alaska to improve our transportation system," Gov. Tony Knowles said in a prepared statement. "With additional funds available for federal highways, the Alaska Marine Highway System (ports), and the Alaska Railroad, this plan reflects the true multi-modal nature of transportation in Alaska. This new legislation works for Alaskans whether they ship or travel by land, sea or rail."

This year's road work is being funded as part of a federal highway funding program, which is derived from the acronym ISTEA, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (often referred to as "ice tea"). Originally envisioned as a 3-year program, Congress continued to extend it each year, for a total of three additional years, while a funding formula was hashed out to satisfy a greater number of states. This year is the last year ISTEA funding is available.

TEA 21, which some government officials are referring to as "next tea" because it follows on the heels of "ice tea," allocates transportation funding to states on a percentage basis. Under the new act, Alaska will receive 1.1915 percent of the total, an increase from the previous 1.16 percent. Alaska will receive $5.13 in federal highway funding for every dollar of gasoline tax collected in the state. The act also includes additional funding, added by Alaska senators Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski, which will provide the state with $120 million to pay for ferries and $94 million needed to complete the last 95 miles of the Alcan Highway in Canada.

Other highlights of the act: The Alaska Railroad will receive $29 million over five years. Congress will have the authority to appropriate $5.25 million annually for railroad capital improvements; Anchorage, the site of the Special Olympics in 2001, is now eligible for Olympic city funds through TEA-21; Fairbanks North Star Borough's cold start programs will now be eligible for Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funding; and Congress also increased funding for the previous transportation bill's most prominent environmental programs, the CMAQ improvement program and the transportation enhancements' program.


Alaska is divided by DOT/PF into three geographic areas for road construction and maintenance. They are the northern, central and southeast regions.

The Northern Region contains the contiguous roads from the Gulf of Alaska northward along the Canadian border, to the Arctic Ocean on the North Slope, to Nome on the Seward Peninsula, and to Valdez on Prince William Sound.

The Southeast Region is essentially the state's panhandle, covering all those cities and communities south of Cordova, including the state capital at Juneau.

The Central Region is where the majority of the large road projects are conducted, and trails and pathways built, because this region contains the largest concentration of population in the state and the heaviest highway usage, due in part to the heavy influx of summer travelers. It also is the most far-flung of the regions. The contiguous highway system in the Central Region runs from the Homer Spit at the end of the Sterling Highway to the regional boundaries on the Glenn Highway at Milepost 118 near Eureka, and the Parks Highway at Milepost 163 at Little Coal Creek. The region also includes Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Chain, as well as isolated villages on the Kuskokwim River and all points between.

The Northern and Central regions run active public awareness campaigns each summer to notify motorists of road construction and to alert drivers to possible detours and delays. Their projects are publicized on the World Wide Web through the department's web site at http//

Engineers in the Central Region were the first to venture into cyberspace, developing The Navigator, a web page with a complete list of projects and the names and phone numbers of the contractors and project engineers for each. They were later imitated by their counterparts in the Northern Region, who created The Compass, which is a similar list of project descriptions, contact names and phone numbers. The Central Region also funds a weekly newspaper advertisement to update motorists on projects. The region prints a brochure each summer of road projects throughout the state and provides project information to The Milepost, an annual travelers' guide, dubbed the bible for visitors and locals who drive in the North.


With the largest region to oversee, Michael Tooley, DOT/PF's highway construction engineer in the Central Region has a lot of work. And it has been that way for a long time.

One of the region's biggest projects in recent years, in terms of money and scope of work, was completed earlier this summer with the opening of a 7-mile section of the Seward Highway outside Anchorage referred to as "Bird to Gird." Designated a National Scenic Highway, the Seward Highway along this route just got a little more scenic with the completion of this project. Engineers have terraced areas where they blasted away rock to create the new roadway, creating waterfalls wherever there are streams and runoff destined for tidewater at Turnagain Arm. The new section of road between Bird Point and the township of Girdwood (Milepost 90-97) was built for $52 million in four phases over four years and was finally opened June 4. Kiewit Pacific was contractor for the final phase, which included new pavement, 600,000 cubic yards of rock excavation, a new railroad grade-separated crossing at Milepost 91, and seven new scenic turnouts along the route.

Opening Bird to Gird is significant in the Central Region because it culminates the Turnagain Arm Reconstruction Project, which lasted 22 years at a cost in excess of $80 million. About 5.25 million cubic yards of material was moved to build 25 miles of rugged, scenic roadway from Potter Marsh to Girdwood. Like all projects, there were headaches to suffer through and adjustments to be made. Tooley said the final phase of the Bird to Gird project was about two weeks behind schedule, which was developed in the dead of winter when no one knew what this season would be like. When spring arrived rainy and wet, crews had to adjust. "I felt good about our completion date," he said, "because we didn't know what to plan for with the weather." Bird to Gird realigns a 7-mile stretch of highway, replacing a narrow, winding hillside road with one at tidewater-moving it out of one of the most active avalanche zones in North America.

In addition, it creates a grade-separated crossing on the railroad, eliminating the possibility of car/train collisions on what had previously been an at-grade crossing on a sharp curve at Milepost 91. The railroad also benefits because it has been realigned to parallel the new road along the mudflats. Previously the tracks paralleled the old, winding roadway, slowing trains and increasing the possibility of encountering avalanches. Track speed on the new section has been increased from 25 mph to 40 mph, according to Railroad Chief Engineer Brooks. The area is heavily traveled by passenger trains, and by freight trains hauling coal and other commodities between Anchorage, Whittier and Seward.

Work isn't finished from Bird to Gird, though. Two new pedestrian undercrossings were installed by D OT/PF in preparation for a trail project that will complete the trail system from the old Bird House bar to the existing pathway on the Girdwood-Alyeska Highway. This facility will incorporate much of the old roadway over Bird Hill. The Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources plans an interpretive facility and walkway system at Bird Point. Ultimately, a trail system is planned to extend from Anchorage to Alyeska and beyond.


Perhaps the other most notable project underway this summer also falls within the Central Region and also involves the Alaska Railroad. It is the much-debated Whittier Access Road.

Delayed last summer by lawsuits from environmental and tourism groups, work this summer has progressed smoothly, according to Tooley. So far, crews have erected a temporary bridge across Portage Lake at the Begich/Boggs Visitors Center and are boring a tunnel through Begich Peak. Once it is built, the new road will extend from Portage through this new tunnel, and connect to an existing railroad tunnel on the other side of Bear Valley.

Kiewit Construction Company was awarded the Phase II contract for the project, which will include designing and building of the new road. Some of the challenges posed by the shared path through a railroad tunnel, besides the obvious traffic concerns, include lighting, ventilation, ice and water control, and emergency systems for fires and other hazards. Kiewit is expected to come back to DOT/PF in the fall for design approval, then work throughout the winter finalizing plans in preparation for next summer.


The Alaska Railroad Corporation faces the same winter weather conditions as DOT/PF and therefore must conduct most of its annual maintenance program in the summer. While the 540-mile-long railroad is state-owned, the corporation is self-sustaining and must rely on any surplus operating income to fund capital improvements. In recent years, the railroad has also qualified for federal transportation funds to help with enhancements and safety features.

A combination of those funds is being used this summer to install new ties, realign track, improve grade separations, and control vegetation along the roadbed. The railroad is in the process of replacing most of its 2 million ties.

Already about 10 percent have been replaced in the past two years, and workers are expected to install about 100,000 additional ties this summer. The railroad plans to install a similar number each year for the next five years.

The average life of a railroad tie is about 40 to 45 years, according to Tom Brooks, chief engineer for the railroad. He said the last major tie replacement program was conducted in 1989, but most date back to the '50s and '60s and are reaching the end of their useful life. The railroad has been diligently seeking federal funds to augment the annual capital improvement program budget. "It feels good to see things coming together so we can make these kind of improvements," said Brooks. A Ninilchik mill was awarded a $350,000 contract in June to supply 10,000 of the ties this summer, making it one of the first suppliers in many years to provide Alaska-grown wood for ties. The ties still have to be shipped outside the state to be treated with creosote before they can be used by the railroad.


The Alaska Railroad Corp. will spend $100,000 this summer on vegetation control research. According to Chief Engineer Tom Brooks, three companies have been awarded contracts to come to Alaska to demonstrate their methods for controlling weed growth along the tracks. Each will treat a different section of track so the methods can be compared for effectiveness as well as cost.

Weeds and other plants are a major maintenance problem along the tracks because the root systems can undermine the roadbed, causing erosion in summer and frost heaves in winter. If left unchecked, plants grow so large they reduce visibility along the tracks and interfere with equipment operation. One of the visiting contractors is expected to bring a hot water system that essentially boils the vegetables with a spray of hot water. Another firm, from Oregon, will use an infra-red heat system to kill the plants. And the final vendor uses a weed burner with a directed flame to torch plants.

Previously the railroad has experimented with chemical forms of vegetation control but received harsh public criticism. Then the corporation turned to a steam machine used by a Canadian railroad, but it proved ineffective and cost-prohibitive. Brooks said this summer's experiments are offshoots of an international symposium the railroad hosted recently to study vegetation control methods used on railroads and highway systems in northern regions around the world.

The experiments for vegetation control this summer are expected to be conducted in the Anchorage and Seward rail yards, in the Fairbanks area, and along about 50 miles of mainline track.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on Alaska Railroad Corp.; road and railroad construction in Alaska
Author:Hamilton, Vivian
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Aug 1, 1998
Previous Article:Only in Alaska.
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