SOLDOTNA (AP) -- Highway engineers planning to widen the Sterling Highway bridge over the Kenai River are faced with a difficult problem.
They need to figure out how to do the project while at the same time keeping the traffic moving to one of the world's premier salmon fishing streams.
The state Department of Transportation has set an aggressive schedule to come up with a plan before construction starts in fall 2003.
''It's going to be an interesting process,'' said Judy Dougherty, the state's project manager.
The DOT's initial plan involves lugging a barge up the river in July, when the water is at its highest and choked with anglers, so it can park a crane next to the bridge for driving piles.
That idea did not sit well with members of the Kenai River Special Management Area advisory board, which first heard of the proposal at a regularly scheduled meeting Thursday in Soldotna.
''They have to get rid of the barge idea,'' said Brett Huber, a member of the board and executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
The state plans to widen the bridge, which was built in 1965, to 95 feet from 38 feet. It will grow from two lanes to four, with wide pedestrian walkways on either side. It will also be strengthened to current earthquake standards.
Work most likely will have to be carefully timed to avoid the river's major fish runs in June, July and August, planners and state park officials say.
Work on the bridge and associated road and sewer improvements should take two years to complete and cost about $13.4 million.
The bridge is built atop three concrete piers, which need to be widened and strengthened, Dougherty said. Work on the two outside piers can be handled from shore, but the cheapest way to reach the middle pier is via a barge-borne crane, she said.
The state could opt for a trestle to hold the crane, but that approach would cost more and would require additional pile driving.
The crane could be staged on the bridge itself, but that would require complete closure of the bridge while the crane operates.
Likewise, if a barge-borne crane is operating in the river, boats would be prohibited from passing it for safety reasons. That could interrupt fishing guides and residents trying to chase salmon up or down river.
There's also the risk of construction equipment stirring up contaminated soil from an old dry cleaning solvent dump next to the bridge at the site of a former laundromat.
Workers will have to be careful to avoid disturbing those contaminated soils 15 feet underground, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
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