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FNSB Assembly narrowly approves bridge replacement

Chena Flood Control spillway and Richardson Highway bridges.
Chena Flood Control spillway and Richardson Highway bridges.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly last week authorized the state to proceed with replacing the bridges on the Richardson Highway that cross over the Chena Spillway. But they added a recommendation that the new design include a better plan for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The State Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has changed plans to replace the aging northbound and southbound bridges with a single span for $78 million.

Borough Transportation Planner Don Galligan said the State Department of Transportation and Public Facilities now says both the bridges are past their recommended age.

“It replaces two functionally obsolete bridges with a new bridge that meets all current design standards and by providing wider outer shoulders, it will improve bicycle and pedestrian connections within the borough.”

Those wider shoulders in the revised plan were not enough for the FNSB Planning Commission. State law charges the local municipal body with giving their approval of major transportation projects.

Planning Commission Chair Kerryn Fisher says the bridges next to the Moose Creek dike provide the only connection between urban Fairbanks and the fast-growing area of Eielson AFB and Salcha.

“We were concerned about the lack of consideration to specifically bikes and pedestrians, given that it is the only bridge, and we were disappointed that it wasn't more forward looking, that it would be much easier to build the bridge with a protected bike path now than to retrofit the bridge later.”

Fisher said the Planning Commission wanted the bridge plan to include a protected bicycle lane, because of the growth in cycling in the Salcha-Badger area. The Planning Commission voted 5-3 last month (March 26) to reject the plan. And normally they would have the final say, but the Assembly provides another check on such plan denials.

In the hearing before the Assembly last week, several commenters, like Mary Farrell, and Robert McHattie said the bridge is being replaced only because new mining operations in the Tetlin area are loading up heavy trucks headed to the Kinross Fort Knox mill on the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks. The 247-mile route from the mine to the mill crosses five bridges that are now slated for replacement.

“But I am against moving forward with projects that ignore the accepted approval process and deny the opportunity for all users to give input. Replacing these two bridges was never on the radar until the ore haul showed up. It is being expedited because of the ore haul.  DOT speaks of seismic concerns and future heavy traffic, but they have already okayed the use of the existing bridges for the ore haul,” Farrell said.

“And, and I think that DOT is being a little bit disingenuous, or quite disingenuous as to why this needs to be done right now,” McHattie said.

because of the current Manh Choh mine gold ore haul operations between Tetlin and Kinross Fort Knox, past Cleary Summit. Kinross Alaska contracted a North Pole trucking company to haul the gold ore on 247 miles of public roads for the next five years. The 95-foot-long tractor-trailers weigh up to 82 tons when fully loaded.

The issue took the assembly to nearly 1 a.m. Friday after three hours of public testimony and assembly debate. Assembly member Scott Crass authored a substitute ordinance requiring the state provide safe access for pedestrian and bicycle crossing. He wanted closer coordination with the long-term plans of the borough.

“And so, I wanted to address those, uh, and, and see if those could be resolved with the Regional Comprehensive Plan and the Sacha/Badger Road Plan,” Crass said.

Crass described how bicyclists now come off the bridge to use the bypass trails across the floodway, but that is a long way for pedestrians, and doesn’t work when the floodway is full of diverted river water.

Member Barbara Haney said she wanted to hear from residents near the project.

“There hasn't been enough public input on the part of local residents that that is what I, I really find the most troublesome because there are contamination issues out there,” Haney said.

Haney referred to groundwater contamination that might be exacerbated if soils were disturbed by heavy trucks.

Member Brett Rotermund said he would support the compromise because the community can’t stop heavy trucks from degrading the bridges.

“If this is truly a safety issue and we're worried about the bridge falling apart, and we can't legally stop the trucks, why in the heck wouldn't we want to rebuild the bridge? Now, I'm not here necessarily advocating for DOT's current design. Maybe that needs to be relooked at. Maybe it needs to be rethought a little bit,” Rotermund said.

The idea of providing a secure path for pedestrians and bicyclists across that span is not new. Member David Guttenberg read from a resolution passed by the borough assembly in 2014 wanting a dedicated multi-modal path all the way to Salcha.

“The assembly supports the need for construction of a dedicated bicycle pedestrian facility along the Rich from North Pole to Salcha. So, this has long been a priority for the borough,” Guttenberg said.

The assembly passed Crass’ compromise resolution in a narrow 5-4 vote.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.