Patti Curry of Wilder Construction positions traffic signs on Funny River Road last summer for the Kenai River bridge replacement project.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Last summer, bridge construction in Soldotna left some businesses feeling stranded from their customers, customers found trapped in the restricted flow of traffic struggling to maneuver through town using the Sterling Highway.
Shari BeDunnah, who has worked as a waitress at Acapulco Mexican Restaurant for three summers, said bridge construction ate away at her tips as the number of customers coming into the restaurant dwindled last summer.
The restaurant suffered its greatest losses when the construction first began, but the construction continues to pose an obstacle for customers trying to access the restaurant’s parking lot.
“It’s hard for them to get into and out of the parking lot,” BeDunnah said. “It’s hard because you have to wait forever.”
Depending on which direction customers are traveling, they may have to circle around on a side road to reach the parking lot, BeDunnah said. And customers leaving the parking lot are no longer free to turn in either direction.
Some business owners have predicted that once the bridge is complete business will be better than before construction began. But in the meantime, BeDunnah said she would be pleased just to see a return of Acapulco’s original customer flow.
There is little construction workers can do to avoid disrupting traffic other than keep as low a profile as possible, said Matthew Coullahan, project engineer for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
Coullahan said workers have tried to minimize traffic disruptions by keeping drivers’ line of vision clear and staying out of the way of traffic as much as possible.
“Other than construction signs we didn’t want to plug the area with too many signs,” he said. “(And) we tried to keep off of the road during the day.”
Of the customers who did not get lost driving in circles to reach businesses near the bridge this summer, more were driven away by construction noise.
Throughout the summer, customers complained and sometimes demanded their money back after hammering kept them awake at the Kenai River Lodge, said John Lee, the lodge’s manager.
The construction noise often hammered on until as late as 10 p.m., Lee said.
That might seem early at the height of tourist season when it remains light out until nearly 12 a.m., but many of Lee’s customers like go to bed before 10 p.m. so they can wake up at 5 a.m. to go fishing, he said.
“It’s a noisy operation,” Coullahan said.
Coullahan confirmed that bridge construction did occasionally continue until as late as 10 p.m. but said most of the worst is over with respect to noise.
The loudest bridge building activity, driving steal piles into the ground with diesel hammers, is nearly complete with 137 out of 160 piles already in place.
Although businesses near the bridge are eager to see the hassles of bridge construction subside, many also are enthusiastic about the improvements that the new bridge will bring with it.
Scott Curry, one of two new owners of The Crossing, located on the Kalifornsky Beach Road side of the bridge, said the bridge will be worth all of the hassles once it is complete.
Due to construction, cars entering The Crossing parking lot sometimes can halt the flow of traffic behind them because there is no center turning lane to allow other traffic to pass by, Curry said.
But conveniently timed renovations have closed The Crossing for much of the bridge’s final construction phase, alleviating some of the traffic hassles that might otherwise occur near the bridge.
The Crossing will not be open to the public until March and until then just the owners and construction workers will be coming into and out of the parking lot, Curry said.
He said he anticipates smooth-flowing traffic once the bridge is complete and that the new bridge’s 12-foot-wide walkways and viewing platform overlooking the river will make the highway more pedestrian-friendly.
“From what I understand there will be a nice big turning lane,” Curry said. “It’ll be a great bridge.”
No one interviewed disputed the bridge needs to be improved to accommodate the flow of traffic that travels through Soldotna at the height of tourist season each year.
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