Bridge delays continue

Soldotna council to take comment on construction schedule

Posted: Wednesday, July 12, 2006

“Just when we thought we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, someone poked us in the eye,” Matt Coullihan said of the construction delays to the Kenai River bridge in Soldotna.

Coullihan, the bridge project manager, was referring to the delays in getting the girders to the city for installation. The installation requires closure of the bridge to traffic for at least six hours for every night of work.

It was originally supposed to be done during May.

Thanks to an ice jam, misunderstandings with the girders’ fabricators, highway closures and railroad company infighting, those girders will start to arrive July 20, he said. And until those girders are installed, no other bridge work can be done.

“The nature of the project is that you have to have one task completely done before you can move on to the next,” Coullihan said.

Starting Monday, the bridge may be closed from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. every other night (excluding Fridays and Saturdays) for nearly a month.

That means closures during the busiest month of the year for Soldotna’s recreation tourism, a period during which some businesses net the majority of their yearly income and the city earns an enormous chunk of sales tax revenue.

If 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. seems like bad timing, consider this: The initial girder installation schedule proposed by the contractors, Wilder Construction, had closures set for eight to nine nights — including weekends — from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. This proposal was predictably unpopular with area businesses.

“Why should we have to pay thousands of dollars for this? It’s not our fault they’re behind schedule,” Soldotna Dairy Queen owner Pete Ischi said during a bridge project update presented at the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday. Ischi’s business is close to the bridge.

At a meeting Tuesday morning between Coullihan, City Manager Tom Boedeker and Mayor Dave Carey, Coullihan was informed that such a schedule was unacceptable, and delaying the bridge’s opening until next July would be preferable.

As a result, Coullihan will present the shortened closure schedule at 6:30 tonight to the Soldotna City Council.

“That’s the only time we could do this without affecting the majority of the businesses,” Coullihan said, noting that in July, any closure will affect someone.

“Somebody’s probably fishing at four in the morning and somebody’s probably leaving the bar at three in the morning.”

Public commentary will be taken at the meeting.

On Tuesday, Ischi said he would be there. He hopes to draw other businesses in, as well.

“Originally, this was never supposed to effect us in June or July,” he said.

During the Tuesday morning meeting, the impact of the proposed 12-hour closure scheme was laid out clearly: City officials said such a schedule could cost businesses 10 to 20 percent of their yearly net margins and cost the city $20 million to $30 million in sales tax revenue.

According to Coullihan and Scott Harter, project manager for Wilder, the bridge’s completion date could feel the impact of a shorter schedule.

“If we reduce the hours, it’s just going to take more days,” Harter said.

He explained that the girders come in three sections, and all three must be put together before one girder can be rolled into place, and only one can be built at a time. The sections come in threes from Seward, stop at the weigh station in Sterling, then arrive at the bridge, he said. While one set of section is being put together, another load is being picked up.

Wilder wanted to install three completed girders per day of work, but Harter concedes that the short schedule will probably only allow for two.

“They’re right at 400,000 pounds, so they don’t roll real fast,” Harter said.

Even the shorter closure schedule is not guaranteed. Another option presented to the chamber was pushing the closures to August.

That would likely mean another winter with the temporary bridge, Coullihan said, as paving could not be done during winter.

That also means the city would have to cover the costs of delaying completion until June 2007 and modifying the 30-odd permits the project has. One such permit allows for the temporary construction easement used by the project on land used by the Crossing restaurant and the Kenai River Terrace RV Park. Those property owners have been paid for the use of their land and would have to be paid for another half year if the opening is delayed.

The who, what, when, why of delays

July is a bad time to close the Kenai River bridge.

So how exactly did such a closure-heavy portion of the project end up needing to be done in July, anyway?

The short answer is delays. The long answer is a bit more complicated, according to project manager Matt Coullihan.

“One glitch can really cause a lot of problems,” he said.

First, an ice jam on the Kenai River in January flooded the project’s coffer dam, delaying work for a few weeks. Then the company fabricating the steel girders, the Selway Corp. of Montana, had to redo them to meet with the high quality standards for a project funded in part by the state of Alaska.

Selway added workers, gave them plenty of overtime for the redo and eventually finished — two weeks behind schedule.

By then, Montana’s hauling regulations had shifted seasons: the girders could not be taken by highway to Seattle, where they were to be loaded onto an Alaska-bound barge.

That meant sending the girders by rail, Coullihan said.

There was a problem here, too: For the girders to go from Montana to Seattle, they had to be shipped on cars owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. In order to make it to the dock heading to Alaska, however, the girders needed to be transferred onto cars owned by Union Pacific. There was a catch, though.

“We had the girders sitting there for 10 or 12 days, but one railroad can’t go onto another’s property and pick something up,” Coullihan said.

When cargo sits for 10 to 12 days, it misses a barge. The trip to Seward only happens once every 10 days, and if your cargo doesn’t make it onto one of the barges, it has to stay put until the next barge comes around.

At one point, Coullihan said, Wilder paid about $17,000 for a barge to stay put, in hopes Burlington Northern and Union Pacific could work out a contract for pickup.

They didn’t, making the project now two months behind.

“We spent money for nothing,” Coullihan said.

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