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DOT planning upgrades along stretch of Richardson Highway

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Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities
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A portion of the Richardson Highway south of Black Rapids includes several bridges that are old and in need of replacement or repair. Many were damaged by last summer's flooding.

State transportation planners are studying a stretch of the Richardson Highway south of Black Rapids to prioritize projects like replacing bridges washed-out by flooding earlier this summer. It’s one of the most scenic drives in Alaska, but its road, bridges and other structures are old and battered and in need of repair or replacement.

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The state Department of Transportation last year found numerous safety and maintenance problems along milepost 206 to 233 of the Richardson Highway. Those concerns were confirmed in July, when heavy flooding along that 27-mile stretch washed-out several bridge approaches and caused other damage that shut down the highway for a week.

Transportation officials estimate it’ll cost some $200 million to repair and upgrade that part of the highway, including bridges and other structures, to modern standards. So, they’re conducting a Planning and Environmental Linkages, or PEL, study to identify the highest priority projects.

“The PEL really allows us to examine the area that washed-out and break it down into small project sections so that we can identify the ones that need to be done first,” says Transportation department spokesperson Danielle Tessen.

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Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities
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Flash floods triggered by heavy rains in July tore out most of the Richardson Highway roadbed on the southern approach to Bear Creek bridge. The floods also damaged six other bridges in a stretch from milepost 218 and 234.

A draft version of the PEL study issued in 2021 identified problems with the bridge over Bear Creek and three others nearby: “Upper Miller, Lower Miller and Castner are in design now, Tessen said, “and we could see those in construction soon,” probably in 2026.

Other projects along that stretch of the Richardson recommended by the PEL study draft include widening the roadway, upgrading culvert and other drainage facilities and engineering work to reduce the risk of rockslides.

“For the other projects, we’re going to identify which ones need to be done first and then really they get put into the alignment for what funding is available,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

Tessen says the PEL study also wants to identify other lesser-priority projects that the public might want for that stretch of the highway. She says that could include improvements like a pullout or parking lot for the Castner Creek Glacier trailhead, at milepost 217.

“We’ve seen an increase in interest in people going there and wanting to hike. And there’s also a lot of other trails off in the area,” she said.

Tessen says the Transportation department wants members of the public to weigh-in on that proposal, as well as other safety upgrades outlined in the PEL study. She says comments and suggestions are welcomed, and must be received by October 1st. The comments may be submitted on a page accessible from the D-O-T website, or by contacting Project Manager Jennifer Wright, with the DOT Northern Region office in Fairbanks.

Editor's note: The deadline to submit comments on the PEL study is Oct. 1. Comments may be submitted online by visiting the PEL virtual open house.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.