Clarion file photo illustration
The song-and-dance antics of J.R. Cox and Paul Morin were about the last things to draw smiles in the Soldotna City Council meeting Wednesday before angry merchants blasted plans to close the Kenai River bridge for several nights in July.
The 18- and 19-year-old actors performed a fiddle and voice number from “Fish On,” a comical review of Alaska fishing regulations now playing at the Triumvirate Theater in the Peninsula Center Mall.
After their five-minute skit, Mayor Dave Carey and Matt Coullahan, a state project manager for the Soldotna bridge, told the nearly filled council chamber of planned bridge closures, and readied for a verbal assault from business owners.
When the bridge project was first announced, merchants said they were told there would be no closures during July by far their busiest month.
On Monday, businesses learned the bridge would need to be closed from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. for nine consecutive nights this month.
Business owners flooded Soldotna City Hall with more than 40 phone calls in three hours, according to Carey, and he went to bridge project officials saying it would be better to delay the completion of the bridge until next year rather than close Soldotna’s main thoroughfare during the busiest recreation and tourism period.
On Wednesday, Carey received a revised closure list saying the bridge will not be closed until 10 p.m. and will be open by 4 a.m. Instead of being closed nine consecutive nights, it will be closed Monday and Tuesday, and then on alternating nights starting Thursday. It will not be closed on Fridays or Saturdays.
“We intend to fully complete this bridge this year,” said Coullahan on Wednesday night.
He also told the business leaders that the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities will be advertising in Anchorage, Homer and Kenai “that Soldotna is still open.”
“I want people to be driving on (the bridge) in September,” Coullahan said.
He explained that the overnight closures are needed in order to assemble and set steel span girders in place on the new bridge.
The girders, which weigh 400,000 pounds, come in three sections and need to be trucked to Soldotna from Seward.
A large boom crane moves back and forth along the temporary bridge setting the girders in position.
Pete Ischi, owner of the Soldotna Dairy Queen, asked Carey why Wilder Construction the company building the bridge could simply close the bridge without having to come to the city for permission.
“It’s a state project and they are not obliged to come to us,” said Carey, who also said Wilder and the state DOT have cooperated with the city and have been forthcoming with information regularly since the bridge project began.
“The concern is the timing,” said Tim Shipman, manager of the River Terrace RV Park.
“The last three weeks of July is when many of us make our money,” he said.
“On Aug. 1, people leave; king (salmon) season is over, red (salmon) season is over,” Shipman said.
“I’m way over ten grand down for June because of this,” said Ardie Crawford, owner of BJs nightclub.
“It’s just too bad. June and July carry us through winter,” she said.
Kathy Musick, a co-owner of Jersey Subs, described the impact of the closures as affecting more than sales.
“One of our services is delivery,” she said. “We have been unable to deliver on the south side of the bridge most of last winter and all of the summer.
“Not only have we felt the impact of these bridge delays during normal hours, but have had to close early on several occasions, as most of our employees live on the south side of the bridge, and with today’s gas prices it is unfair to ask them to drive through Kenai to get home,” Musick said.
She asked if there would be any compensation for her employees who she is forced to lay off due to a lack of business, and asked that the bridge be left open until after the Kenai Peninsula State Fair in Ninilchik.
Sally Hoskins, owner of Sal’s Diner, said, “We’ve waited all year for these two weeks and we’re not gonna have them. We ask the city to help us.”
Not all the comments were negative.
Paul Miller, owner of Trustworthy Hardware, thanked Coullahan and the city for the quick response to the complaints, and Cherie Curry, who owns The Crossing restaurant with her husband, said Wilder Construction has been “very receptive to our questions and suggestions.”
Coullahan said if the closures were delayed until next month as several merchants suggested, the bridge could not be completed this fall, and the temporary bridge would remain for another nine months because paving could not be done until the next construction season.
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