*This story won Third Place for Best Reporting on Government or Politics from the Alaska Press Club in 2013.
Work on the big Alaska Railroad bridge across the Tanana River in Salcha is on track to be completed next August. But it looks like the state’s longest bridge won’t be getting much use over the next few years, because the Army doesn’t have money to build roads on the other side of the Tanana.
Project Director Mark Peterburs says workers set the last girders in place Wednesday on the 3,300-foot bridge, so that its frame now extends all the way across the Tanana River.
Peterburs said during a tour of the construction site last week that contractor Kiewit Infrastructure West is hustling to get as much work done as possible on the far side of the river before shutting down next month until February.
“There’s a lot of work on the other side left, with building the levee and launching tow. And then there’s grade that’s being built over there,” he said, pointing to an area just off the end of the bridge . “So there’s a lot of rock trucks running back and forth, and they’re all trying to share that space.”
Peterburs says the contractor is on schedule to complete construction of the 190-million-dollar bridge next August. The Alaska Railroad will then convey control over access to the bridge to Army, which eventually will use it to move soldiers and equipment to training areas on the other side of the Tanana. That’s why the Defense Department contributed about $105 million to the project.
But U.S. Army Alaska spokesman John Pennell says USARAK won’t be using the bridge much anytime soon, until it can afford to do more work on the far side.
“There’s not a lot of infrastructure already in the Tanana Flats Training Area,” Pennell said. “We’ll have to go through and build roads and trails so that we can get into the area and maneuver around once we get into there."
The Pentagon’s budget is the biggest target for lawmakers trying to reduce federal spending. So Pennell says it’s not known when the Army will be able to provide funding to pay for that work.
“A lot of the infrastructure work that would need to be done – it’s all going to be dependent on budget,” he said. “And right now it’s anybody’s guess as to how that’s going to shake out.”
Pennell says the bridge won’t just sit there unused. But he says it’s hard to say how much it will be used. He says the Army has not yet drawn up any definitive plans for the infrastructure work needed at the other side of the bridge.
The bridge is the first part of a larger project known as the Northern Rail Extension, which would extend tracks from where they end at Eielson Air Force Base to an area west of the Delta River near Delta Junction.
The railroad extension was intended to provide an alternate means of transporting freight and passengers between Delta and Fairbanks, and to provide year-round access to training ranges for the military.
But railroad officials acknowledge that tight federal and state budgets will make it hard to find money for the next three phases of the project.