Could bridge problems have been avoided?

Posted: Sunday, July 16, 2006

It’s a catch-22.

Business vs. business.

Do we want the Kenai River bridge in Soldotna completed or do we postpone it so businesses that depend on July traffic for their livelihood can continue to do so?

It’s not an easy decision, but one that has to be made by looking at the bottom line.

Rare is the case when a state project comes in on time and under budget, and the Soldotna bridge is not going to be added to that list.

Errors in calculations, procedures, policies and schedules have wreaked havoc with the steel girders. Made in Montana, the girders were not initially built up to Alaska code. How that happens in a project as big as this leaves us wondering. Were there no checks in place?

After the delay of fixing that issue, the girders couldn’t be shipped to Seattle via truck, they had to go by railroad.

The girders had to be shipped on cars owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. However, in order to make it to the dock heading to Alaska, they needed to be transferred onto cars owned by Union Pacific.

That created another roadblock.

According to project manager Matt Coullahan, one railroad can’t go onto another’s property and pick something up.

The barge to Seward makes the trip every 10 days. At the point that the girders were on Burlington cars, Coullahan said, Wilder Construction, who’s building the bridge, paid about $17,000 for a barge to stay put, in hopes Burlington Northern and Union Pacific could work out a contract for pickup.

But that didn’t happen.

“We spent money for nothing,” Coullahan said.

It’s understandable that projects don’t always turn out the way they’re intended. Glitches are part of the game. However, doesn’t it make more sense to fly to Montana and make sure the project is being handled correctly than to try and fix problems later and spend ten times the cost of an airline ticket?

It sounds more like poor planning and follow up than misfortune. And now that poor planning is going to cost Soldotna businesses.

The original request was to close the bridge from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. for nine consecutive nights this month, but business owners cried “foul” in numbers. Soldotna City Hall got more than 40 phone calls in three hours, and Mayor Dave Carey suggested it would be better to delay the completion of the bridge until next year rather than close Soldotna’s main road during the busiest recreation and tourism period of the year.

Coullahan and his crew want the bridge finished this year. Businesses want to wait until August. A compromise was reached: The bridge will not be closed until 10 p.m. and will be open by 4 a.m. Monday and Tuesday, and then on alternating nights starting Thursday. It will not be closed on Fridays or Saturdays.

It isn’t the best solution, but it certainly is a better one.

The state has total control over the project and their urgency in getting the work done is noted, but at what cost? Alaskans thrive on tourism.

Soldotna Dairy Queen owner Pete Ischi said businesses were told the project would not affect them in June or July.

“Why should we have to pay thousands of dollars for this? It’s not our fault they’re behind schedule,” he said.

One would think planning would pay a crucial role in getting such projects done in Alaska.

For now there’s a doable answer. The bridge will be appreciated when it’s complete, but it’s far from the last project the Kenai Peninsula will have to tolerate. The Kalifornsky Beach Road paving project is just around the corner, and we can only wonder what’s in store for us down the road. Hopefully, a well thought-out plan.

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