Keep it simple, Soldotna.
That was the message delivered to the Soldotna City Council during a meeting Wednesday evening to hear public comment on the proposed new Sterling Highway bridge over the Kenai River.
A dozen citizens were present at Soldotna City Hall for the public hearing that preceded the regular council meeting, and most expressed a desire to lose many of the frills designers have proposed for the new bridge.
"I've been quite upset about all the foo-foo designs you're proposing," said Joyce Cox, a former council member. "Anything you put on the bridge that will block the beauty of the view of the river will be a detriment."
After a March unveiling of the design proposed for the structure showed a suspension bridge design, subsequent artists renderings were published and circulated. Ideas included adding features like giant salmon statues, flags lining a river-viewing area off the pedestrian walkways, fish patterns in a chain mesh that would separate roadways from planned 10-foot-wide pedestrian walkways, or large angular stones that rested at each corner of the bridge.
City engineer and public works director Steve Bonebrake said he had heard similar concerns leading up to the meeting.
"I had about six comments this week, and the main concern was to be able to see the river," he said.
He also said worries over the visibility of the river shouldn't be a concern for drivers who should "be paying attention to the road."
Soldotna began exploring the prospect of a new bridge when the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities identified the current structure as being in need of significant rebuilding. DOT officials began working with the city to establish a design that would address the immediate need for a new Kenai River crossing, as well as correcting the bottleneck the current bridge creates when it narrows from five lanes to two.
To accommodate this, the new bridge will have five lanes, with two going in each direction, and a middle lane that will be marked off with yellow lines to prohibit traffic. This lane will open into a turning lane for northbound drivers, allowing for what is now an illegal left turn onto Riverside Drive.
The 400-foot, lighted bridge project was approved through a federal highway grant that will cover 90 percent of the expense and require a 10-percent match from the state to build.
Judy Dougherty, the DOT project manager, was there to field public queries and document suggestions, concerns and ideas for the project. She said the price of the bridge would be about $28 million, down from an initial $34-million price tag.
This change, as well as significant changes to artist renderings for the bridge, came following a constructability evaluation DOT conducted.
"We found that there were some risks that we didn't want to take," Dougherty said.
In particular, she said the foundation on each side of the bridge may have required a drilled shaft, where soil is removed and replaced with concrete.
"Then you have to do something with the soil," she said, expressing concern about moving contaminated soil from the old cleaners at the northeast corner of the bridge.
"The contamination site that we're being very sensitive around would've cost more money."
Other modifications for raising the initially proposed suspension bridge, like adding several hundred more piles to the river to hold up the bridge, threatened to add another year and about $8 million more to the project.
After hearing the dollar amount, Soldotna resident Bill Reeder suggested a new bridge isn't a necessity.
"In the long term, I don't think we need another bridge," he said. "Why can't they build a bridge in Kenai?"
Dougherty responded that the existing bridge requires an unavoidable overhaul.
"If we were to keep the existing width of the bridge, we would still have to do work on it," she said. "The current bridge doesn't meet seismic standards."
Earl Miller took exception to what the bridge would cost the state and suggested a less-detailed bridge could save money that might go to other highway projects.
"I think you're looking at a Cadillac for a Chevrolet city," he said. "We don't need a turning lane. And I don't think two 10-foot pedestrian lanes is needed. It's a waste of money."
State Rep. Kelly Wolf, R-Kenai, said residents should be mindful of how much the bridge costs, because the state's portion of the funding for the bridge will need to pass Gov. Frank Murkowski's approval next year.
"If we design something that is fiscally irresponsible, how are we going to get it passed?" Wolf asked. "Our governor said we have to maintain a certain level of spending."
Dougherty said Wolf's questions reflected the recent governmental change.
"We went from one administration that said we needed a signature bridge, to another that said 'we're tightening the budget,'" she said.
Wolf asked that Dougherty eliminate some of the "bells and whistles" to trim costs and suggested having two 10-foot pedestrian lanes is unnecessary.
"No one will use them in the winter," he said.
Bonebrake said having the wide pathways would make it easy for road crews to remove snow with a pickup truck attached with plow equipment, a responsibility Soldot-na city workers take on all walkways around town during the winter. Dougherty said the width allows for two-way traffic or walking and biking traffic on the bridge.
Rosie Reeder said by making a pedestrian-safe space, she would recommend using it year-round.
"If it were decent, walkable space, I would walk across it," she said.
Images of the three current bridge designs can be viewed at River City Books in Soldotna and online at the city's Web site, www.ci.soldotna. ak.us, by clicking on "Soldotna Bridge Project."
Soldotna City Hall is accepting suggestions, comments and sketches.
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